Three days of U.S.-Soviet talks yielded two surprising results last night: a joint statement on the means for ending the Persian Gulf War and creating stability in the Middle East, and Soviet statements to President Bush, announced in his State of the Union address, that suggested an easing of Moscow's confrontation with the breakaway Baltic republics.
Neither result was forecast in advance of the meetings of the new Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, with Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III. But both grow out of the needs of the two nations to work together internationally and prevent a serious breach over their differing views of Soviet internal developments.
Together, the statements indicate that for now, at least, the cooperative relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union that changed the map of Europe and the nature of global politics remains intact and working.
Before Bessmertnykh landed at Andrews Air Force Base Saturday afternoon, Moscow sounded uncertain about the common purpose in the Persian Gulf, hinting that its opposition to "escalation" of the war against Iraq might lead it away from the international political coalition. At the same time, the Soviet use of deadly military force in the Baltic states had generated strong opposition here, including unanimous votes of condemnation in both houses of Congress. All this suggested that Washington and Moscow might soon return to the cross-purposes that characterized their Cold War relationship.
Both the gulf and Baltics issues were addressed by Baker and Bessmertnykh in their meeting late Saturday afternoon, according to U.S. sources. Baker suggested the possibility of a joint Persian Gulf statement that could demonstrate that no gap had opened between Washington and Moscow on the war. He also told Bessmertnykh, these sources said, that some specific assurances on the conflict in the Baltics, not just general statements of peaceful intention, were necessary to assuage U.S. concern on that front.
One other thing was set in motion then that would prove important in maintaining the atmosphere of give and take in which the other issues could be resolved. The postponement of the U.S.-Gorbachev summit meeting set for Feb. 11-13 was necessary for Bush because of the domestic U.S. reaction to the Baltics crackdown, as well as because of the pressing business of the war and failure to complete the strategic arms treaty on time. But in consideration of Gorbachev's needs, there was no reference to the Baltics in the statement postponing the summit, and Baker refused to acknowledge publicly that it had been a factor.
"It was a very delicate dance" to work separately on the gulf, the Baltics and the preservation of a close U.S.-Soviet relationship, said a senior U.S. official, without ever saying or suggesting that these supposedly separate issues were related. Everyone knew, though, the official said, that they were "closely associated."
In the gulf statement, the Soviet Union made it explicit once more that it will insist on Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, in effect foreswearing acceptance of any terms short of the common goal. In return, the United States pledged to avoid civilian casualties so far as possible, and said it is seeking to avoid "escalation" and "expansion" of the war.
In the most significant paragraph of the statement, the two nations declared that "a cessation of hostilities would be possible if Iraq would make an unequivocal commitment to withdraw from Kuwait," backed by "immediate, concrete steps" in this direction. This formulation was the first since the war began in which the United States offered Iraq a cease-fire under terms short of total and immediate withdrawal from Kuwait as a precondition. Having both powers sign on to the statement carries additional weight.
The discussion of the shape of post-war peace efforts in the Middle East calling for a "meaningful peace process -- one which promotes a just peace, security and real reconciliation for Israel, Arab states and Palestinians," helps to reassure Arab and Third World states, and may win Moscow some credit with them. It is also likely to generate concern in Israel. A senior U.S. official pointed out last night, however, that the language was general, and did not include mention of the international conference on the Middle East which is strongly favored by many, but adamantly opposed by the current Israeli government.
The maneuvering with regard to the Baltics began with a letter from Bush to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev delivered in Moscow last Thursday, described by U.S. sources as an unusually tough statement of Washington's concern. Gorbachev sent a letter back with Bessmertnykh, who read excerpts of it to Bush at Monday's White House meeting, which dealt nearly exclusively with the Baltic issue, according to U.S. sources.
Not in the letter but stated orally by the Soviet minister were several specific commitments that he had obtained from Gorbachev since meeting Baker on Saturday, U.S. sources said. One was a statement that additional Soviet army forces that had been deployed to the Baltic states in recent weeks have now been withdrawn. Another was an assurance that a large number of Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) troops in the Baltics are "being withdrawn." MVD troops include the "Black Berets" that have taken such a leading role in recent violence.
Bessmertnykh also stated in explicit terms his intention to solve the Kremlin's problems with the Baltic states through "peaceful dialogue," though he made the point that this required a similar willingness on the part of the Baltic governments.
Administration officials said last night that the commitments with regard to the Baltics, while significant and reassuring, must be fulfilled in practice if this contentious issue between Washington and Moscow is to be defused. The new assurances, they hope, are a step toward turning the tide away from repression.
The entire exercise was an effort to show that, despite turmoil in the Soviet Union that has provoked a strong reaction in the West, the new cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union remains a central fact of international life. Officials in both countries hope that this can continue to be true, even though the two leaders were forced to postpone the February summit.