BONN, JULY 13 -- Like a confident salesman who can taste victory, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl heads for Moscow Saturday hoping that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is moving toward closing the deal on German unification.
Gorbachev has invited Kohl to spend two days in the Caucasus, the region where the Soviet leader grew up -- a move the chancellor has taken as a sign that Gorbachev wants to form the kind of close personal relationship that has developed recently between Kohl and President Bush.
The payoff for such a relationship and a package of offers that many German newspapers are calling a "bribe" could be the long-sought Soviet green light for Kohl's unification express. With 360,000 troops in East Germany, the Soviets retain significant leverage over the otherwise unhindered merger of the two Germanys this December.
The German strategy is to prevent Gorbachev from losing face at home over the collapse of East Germany and the rise of a powerful new Germany as the most successful country in Europe.
German politicians like to compare today's Soviet Union to Germany after World War I -- a defeated giant that grew deeply resentful after the victors stripped it of money, land and dignity. The Soviets need extensive aid and reassurance, Bonn leaders argue, to prove to them that the West is not out to take advantage of their weakness.
Despite Kohl's inability at the Houston economic summit this week to persuade the United States, Britain and Japan to give the Soviets $15 billion in loans, the chancellor has plenty to offer Gorbachev.
The West Germans already have pledged $3 billion in state-guaranteed credits. Now Kohl says his country will give the Soviets more sorely needed hard currency by buying more Soviet oil and gas -- a pledge that has raised howls of protest from Esso and other large non-Soviet oil companies that supply West Germany.
The Germans also want to assure Gorbachev that they will honor East German trade deals with the Soviets. That assurance could end up costing a united Germany dearly because many of the East German state enterprises that have made their country the Soviet Union's largest trade partner are collapsing, unable to compete in the new all-German market economy.
Kohl will give Gorbachev details of the German plan to pay $730 million to support Soviet troops in East Germany this year. The Germans also are willing to build housing in the Soviet Union for that country's returning soldiers. One West German source said tonight that German construction companies will move to the Soviet Union to set up massive, long-range building operations.
The chancellor will describe his plan, unveiled at the NATO summit earlier this month, to limit a unified German military. He also will repeat his assurance that the new Germany will foreswear the use of atomic and chemical weapons.
Kohl is not willing, however, to give Gorbachev the assurance he wants: that the new Germany will be nuclear-free. Gorbachev's demand draws much public sympathy in Germany, but the conservative Kohl government has resisted it because of Germany's commitment to NATO's defense plans.
Coming one day after a visit to Moscow by NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, a West German and the first head of the Western alliance ever to travel to the Soviet Union, Kohl's trip is meant to drive home to the Soviets the seriousness of NATO's intention to be a non-threatening organization.
Still, neither the Germans nor other Western powers expect the deal on German unity to be sealed this weekend. "The Soviets do not agree on anything until the last minute," an American diplomat said. "You can't expect dramatic breakthroughs on a bilateral basis."
But a top West German said tonight that Kohl wants to hear only that the Soviets are "ready for a more intensive relationship with Germany." A statement of such willingness would be a major breakthrough for Kohl, whose relations with Gorbachev have a history of being difficult.
Four years ago, in an interview with Newsweek magazine, Kohl compared Gorbachev's international public relations drive to that of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Ensuing Soviet-German relations, cool at best since World War II, iced over as meetings were cancelled and harsh words exchanged.
The opening of the Berlin Wall thawed the relationship. Despite their early insistence that a united Germany could not belong to NATO, Soviet strategists slowly but surely have concluded that they need close ties to a united Germany for both economic and security reasons.
Although Gorbachev has not given his blessing to a united Germany within NATO, the Soviets have made ever-friendlier noises about key issues that still divide Europe's two largest powers.
Gorbachev's statements have been far less antagonistic in recent weeks. The Soviet insistence that a united Germany retain East Germany's Warsaw Pact membership has grown weaker.
Kohl, too, has come a long way in his estimation of the Soviet leader, both because of Gorbachev's accomplishments -- the West Germans tend to give Gorbachev a hefty share of the credit for sparking the East German revolution -- and because the Soviets are the only obstacle standing between Kohl and unification achieved by the time the chancellor faces reelection in December.