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The Kremlin's master showman is at it again.

As a result, the Bush administration finds itself constantly on the defensive, looking timid and inept. Though the facts don't always justify such an image, outward appearances often matter just as much in international politics as they do in its domestic variety.We're referring to the recent word out of Washington to the effect that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has privately promised the United States that Moscow will stop shipping weapons to the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

This development follows on the heels of Gorbachev's announcement last Friday that the Soviet Union will unilaterally remove 500 short-range nuclear warheads, bombs and artillery shells from Eastern Europe.

The upshot of this propaganda blitz is to put President Bush under pressure to counter with some arms concessions of his own. But before Americans start criticizing the White House for being slow to respond, they should keep a few pertinent facts firmly in mind:

1. The Soviet economy is suffering so badly that Gorbachev may be cutting back on arms shipments to Nicaragua not because he wants to but because he has to.

2. So far, the Kremlin has not made any public statements to back up its private promises about those shipments to Nicaragua. Nicaragua, in fact, insists it has heard nothing from Moscow about a cutoff on Soviet military aid.

3. Though Moscow is withdrawing 500 short-range nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe, they presumably are obsolete devices. In any event, Moscow still has more than 10,000 such weapons targeted on NATO. By contrast, the Western allies have only 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe.

4. Since 1979, Scripps Howard News Service reports, the United States has removed not just 500 but a total of 4,000 warheads from Europe - a fact that Europeans and Americans alike tend to overlook.

5. A telling point about Soviet words vs. Soviet deeds is also contained in a report Wednesday from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which monitors developments in arms control and weapons trading. The United States used to be the world's leading exporter of conventional weapons. But not any more. The Soviet Union has taken over that unenviable position, accounting for 38 percent of global arms sales. The United States comes in a poor second, at 28 percent. While Gorbachev poses as the leading exponent of peace, the fact is that the Soviet Union has become the leading merchant of death.

One final point: Though much of the world looks on Mikhail Gorbachev as a fresh breeze blowing through Russia, some bad old Soviet habits still haven't changed. Like the habit of intentionally lying about America. Only a few days ago, while observers from many parts of the world reported virtually unanimously that the election in Panama was stolen by strongman Manuel Noriega, the official Soviet news agency Tass insisted that the election fraud was the work of Noriega's opponents.

As long as Russia refuses to forgo such lies and cheap shots, does anyone seriously wonder why the White House still doesn't trust the Kremlin?