In talks with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt Nov. 23, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev resurfaced the Soviet proposal for an East-West moratorium on new medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, according to Soviet and West German briefings.
Mr. Brezhnev seems to have shifted the moratorium emphasis somewhat toward an unelaborated offer to accompany any freeze on new deployment with an actual reduction of Soviet weapons in Europe.
Possible European reductions have been a part of previous Soviet proposals and informed West German sources detect nothing new so far in the latest version.
The West rejected the earlier Soviet moratorium proposals of October 1979 and February 1981 as perpetuating present Soviet superiority in European continental nuclear missiles. Moscow's condition for a freeze on existing medium-range Soviet nuclear missiles has always been a NATO waiving of any deployments of medium-range nuclear missiles of its own. At present the US has no comparable land-based nuclear missiles in Europe while the Soviet Union has 175 three-warhead SS-20s targeted on Western Europe.
Brezhnev's repetition of the moratorium proposal came in the intitial tour d'horizon between Schmidt, Brezhnev, Foreign Minister Hans Deitrich Genscher, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, and Soviet Col. Gen. Nikolai Shchervov. Shchervov, the spokeman for the Soviet general staff, is said to be an expert on nuclear weapons.
The Soviet moratorium idea follows from the Soviet claim of a present NATO-Warsaw Pact balance in European-range nuclear weapons. The Russians dispute the Western claim of a lopsided Soviet superiority, and a battle of conflicting statistics is currently being waged before the West European public.
Judging from Brezhnev's written interview in Der Spiegel earlier this month, Moscow would want to include American ''forward-based systems'' (including aircraft and submarine-based missiles) in any moratorium. NATO's and Schmidt's position is that forthcoming arms control talks should concentrate first on the most threatening weapons, land-based continental-range nuclear missiles, and only then expand to weapons that are more ambiguous and therefore more difficult to regulate.
In responding to Soviet hints of possible reduction of Soviet nuclear missiles based in Europe, Schmidt repeated his position that withdrawals behind the Urals would be no assurance to the West, according to West German sources. SS-20s could still hit Hamburg and Bonn from east of the Urals, Schmidt is said to have pointed out.
Schmidt is also said to have stressed that the initial mistake of the strategic arms control agreement must not be repeated, in giving free rein to any weapons under the minimum range covered by limits. It was this gap in SALT that the Russians filled in beginning to deploy SS-20s in 1977. Schmidt insists that no similar gap allow some Soviet build-up of shorter-range systems in East Germany that would be just as threating to West Germany as the SS-20s.