The Reagan administration expects the Soviet Union to use Vitaly Yurchenko's charges of kidnaping and torture as a propaganda weapon against the United States, but U.S. officials believe that the incident will have only a minor impact on this month's summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
"We are proceeding with our preparations for the summit meeting," State Department spokesman Charles Redman said yesterday. "We already have stated our desire that President Reagan's meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev should set an agenda for more productive U.S.-Soviet relations in the coming years . . . . We do not believe that the Yurchenko case should affect these plans . . . . "
Both governments have invested so much in the Nov. 19-20 summit in Geneva that neither appears willing to let the Yurchenko case or recent incidents involving a Soviet seaman in New Orleans and a Soviet soldier in Afghanistan disrupt it, officials said.
The officials said they would not be surprised if Gorbachev cites Yurchenko's allegations as a counter to Reagan's efforts to raise the question of Soviet human rights abuses. But they said it won't stop Reagan from talking about human rights.
While the Yurchenko case offers some potentially strong temptations for Soviet propagandists, U.S. officials believe that the incident will be kept within roughly the same bounds that both sides imposed on the other two incidents involving potential Soviet defectors.
The Soviet seaman twice sought to flee from his ship near New Orleans but later said he wanted to return home. In the other, a young Soviet soldier sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. He also ultimately decided to go back, but not before Soviet and Afghan troops surrounded the embassy.
Both incidents involved several days of diplomatic standoff, but neither Washington nor Moscow allowed the two cases to escalate to the point where they might affect the summit.
In fact, in the case of the Soviet sailor, many conservative critics have seized on errors allegedly made by the Border Patrol at the outset of the incident to charge that the administration had returned the seaman against his will because it did not want to jeopardize the summit. The administration, while denying the charges, has stuck to the point made by Reagan's national security affairs adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, in an Oct. 27 television interview.
"These kinds of things happen periodically, and normally are able to be resolved without escalation," McFarlane said. "Clearly there are more profound issues to be focused on right now."
As a result, one official predicted, "the Soviets will make their charges about the heinous crimes we've supposedly committed against Yurchenko, we will deny them as totally false, and by the time we get to Geneva, it probably will be pretty much of a side issue."
The officials noted that the story told by Yurchenko is far from clear-cut proof of American misconduct and does not disprove the U.S. contention that he defected willingly to the United States and then underwent a change of heart.
"The people in Europe or elsewhere who are likely to be influenced by the Soviet propaganda are people who already believe the worst about the CIA," one official said. "But Yurchenko's story is so fishy that it will have limited impact, at best, on anyone who looks at the matter dispassionately. We think their propaganda efforts will end up largely as a case of preaching to the converted."