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US-Soviet relations; The arms race and coexistence

By Ned TemkoStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1983


It is the most overworked of phrases, distinguished this time by the probability that it is true: 1983 will be a ''crucial year'' in the superpower struggle to control the nuclear arms race.

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Moscow and Washington are conducting two parallel negotiating processes in Geneva: the first, on long-range, strategic weaponry; the second, dealing with shorter-range nuclear armaments based on the European continent.

In recent weeks the new Kremlin leadership, while making no startling departures from past negotiating positions, has issued major policy statements on both sets of talks. On European arms, party leader Yuri Andropov has significantly refined the Soviet position to include an explicit public offer to remove ''dozens'' of late-vintage SS-20 Soviet missiles from the European part of the country.

The US administration, too, has been devoting more public attention to the arms talks - but so far it has broken no new substantive ground.

Even in the best of circumstances, the world will not be a strikingly safer place 12 months from now. ''Euronuclear'' forces could be limited significantly, but not completely, by this year's talks. The two sides' sharply divergent strategic-arms reduction proposals envisage phased cutbacks that would leave thousands of more potent nuclear warheads untouched at least for the foreseeable future.

At issue for now are these relatively modest aims: ensuring that the world does not get appreciably more dangerous, and trying to strengthen barriers against accidental launch of weapons that neither side, in a rational moment, would dream of using.

Rarely if ever since the outset of the arms negotiation process some 15 years ago has each of the superpowers had such evident incentive for negotiating. This is especially true on the European front, where there may be something approximating a ''deadline'' for compromise. The Western alliance is publicly committed to start deploying new US missiles by the end of 1983 to counter the Soviet missile force.

Yet the hitch - one that should become increasingly evident throughout the year - is that the two sides' incentives differ, and that alongside incentives to negotiate there are potential disincentives to make the concessions that are key to workable compromise.

And there are complicating historical differences between the strategic nuclear forces of the two superpowers. The Kremlin has long relied on large numbers of powerful, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as the principal component of its force. The Americans, for their part, have generally relied on a technological lead in weapons development. The apples-and-oranges problem has been sidestepped in earlier strategic-arms pacts. But it has become a central question in the current talks.

For the Americans, a key incentive to talk arms control is unprecedented popular pressure in the West to curb nuclear weaponry. Also, the Reagan administration is determined to try to negotiate away what it terms the ''first-strike'' threat of the Soviets' ICBM force and, in Europe, of medium-range Soviet SS-20 rockets targeted at Western countries.

The first threat is disputed by some Western arms analysts - who argue that the US has enough retaliatory credibility in less vulnerable submarine and airborne forces to deter any preemptive strike against its aging land-based missile force. The second alleged threat is more generally accepted by Western analysts.

For the Soviets - who are immune to popular ''antinuke'' pressure, much less to the possibility their rubber-stamp parliament will tamper with funds for new military programs - the main incentive lies in concern about US plans to deploy a new array of strategic weaponry for which the Kremlin has no credible, early answer.