WASHINGTON -- It has taken seven months to get the date set, but George Bush is finally headed to Moscow tomorrow, with an arms-control treaty tucked under one arm and a "new agenda" for U.S.-Soviet relations under the other.
The ceremonial anchor of his two-day Moscow meeting with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev will be the signing of a landmark agreement that for the first time reduces U.S. and Soviet arsenals of strategic nuclear arms -- primarily ballistic missiles.
Snags in the final months of nine years of negotiating the new weapons limits and verification procedures, as well as what the United States considered to be Soviet backsliding on other issues, delayed what was to have been a snowy session in January until just days before President Bush is due to go on a monthlong summer vacation in Maine.
But the White House insists Mr. Bush's first presidential trip to the Soviet Union is not for an "arms control summit," but to join with Mr. Gorbachev and some of the increasingly powerful leaders of the Soviet republics in determining what role the United States can play in helping the country through the agonies of an economic and political revolution.
At the top of this "new agenda," said Brent Scowcroft, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, will be getting an up-to-date assessment of where things stand in the relationship between the central government of Mr. Gorbachev and the republics.
As part of that mission, Mr. Bush will also be meeting privately Tuesday with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and will travel to Kiev Thursday for several meetings and an address to the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian republic.
But while encouraging the movement toward democracy and free markets, Mr. Bush is trying not to take sides in the internal power struggle except to come out squarely against the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a political unit.
That may explain his decision to visit the Ukraine, which is working toward autonomy within the federal framework agreed to by Mr. Gorbachev rather than striking out on its own.
The United States is eager, though, for the Soviets to settle some basic questions about the ownership of resources because potential trading partners and investors need to know with whom they can deal.
Mr. Bush is expected to announce in Moscow that he will urge Congress to grant most-favored-nation trading status to the Soviets, which would knock down some very tall tariff barriers standing between them and American consumers, and could become a great boon to their economy.
While much of the focus in the Soviet Union is necessarily turned inward, Mr. Bush is also looking forward to talking to Mr. Gorbachev about ways in which their newfound international alliance can be used for mutual benefit.
Soviet backing for Mr. Bush during the Persian Gulf crisis was deemed critical to the effort and marked the first time since World War II that the two nations had been on the same side of a major conflict.
Even more dramatic would be the announcement of a jointly sponsored peace conference on the Middle East, to which the two leaders hope to be able to extend invitations during their Moscow meeting. It wasn't clear that acquiescence from Israel, the last remaining holdout of the regional participants, would come through that soon, however.
In any case, Mr. Gorbachev has invited the president to spend some time at his residence in Novo Ogaryevo, similar to the Soviet leader's visit last year to Camp David. There, the two men plan to chew over the incredible pace of change in their relationship in 2 1/2 years and figure out where their partnership may be going from here, Mr. Scowcroft said.
Michael Mandelbaum, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the Moscow session will probably be the last that can properly be termed a "summit" in the sense of the leaders of the two most powerful countries meeting in Olympian fashion to assure the world they are not about to make war.
It is not necessarily the end of arms control agreements, though, U.S. officials say.
But instead of working toward deeper cuts in their own arsenals, the two nations are now expected to focus on curbing the proliferation of weapons worldwide and developing defenses against accidental or guerrilla use of nuclear arms.
During his three-day visit to the Soviet Union, Mr. Bush is also expected to make a major address to the Soviet people Tuesday, to participate in a press conference with Mr. Gorbachev Wednesday after signing the treaty, and to lay a wreath Thursday at the Babi Yar Holocaust Monument outside Kiev.