Nuclear chess

President Reagan's offer to meet Yuri Andropov to sign a deal banishing US and Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles was essentially a chess move made the second time. The conditions of that offer were so patently unacceptable to Moscow that a rejection was a foregone conclusion. Whether Mr. Reagan persuaded some of his European listeners of his serious intentions, as he presumably intended, is doubtful. Europeans know that Mr. Reagan was offering something - namely, the ''zero option'' - which had already been turned down.

To understand why it was turned down again, it may be useful to recap the issues involved. The Reagan letter to the Europeans, read by Vice-President Bush in West Berlin, carefully tied a summit meeting to an agreement banning US and Soviet intermediate-range land-based missiles ''from the face of the earth.'' That has a fine rhetorical flourish but it does not address realities. The fact is, Mr. Reagan's zero-option proposal excludes the Soviet SS-20s that are deployed east of the Urals and are targeted on China. Why would the Russians now accept an agreement that demanded even more concessions from them?

Then there is the fact that ''zero option'' excludes independent French and British nuclear forces. These weapons also would not be covered by a US-Soviet agreement on medium-range missiles.

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Does it matter? It can be argued that it does to the Russians. France's forces, for example, may be puny by comparison with Soviet and NATO arsenals, but even its land-based components are hardly insignificant.The French are embarked on a massive modernization program. They have just installed nine new ballistic missiles to replace older models. The new S-3 carries ''only'' a single warhead but the warhead is equal in power to a million tons of TNT - about 50 times the size of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There are now 18 S-3s in place to complement France's nuclear submarine and bomber forces. The missiles have a range of almost 2,200 miles and can strike at European Russia.

It can only disappoint the proponents of nuclear arms control that the superpowers, instead of just quietly negotiating, are caught up in a propaganda effort to win the hearts and minds of the European people. Arms control seems to have become hostage to political posturing. Actual negotiations have resumed in Geneva, to be sure, and perhaps these can be insulated from the public relations campaigns under way on both sides. But, if past experience is any guide, serious negotiation can take place only behind closed doors, and certainly not in public.

Mr. Reagan's peace overture via the voice of his vice-president does not seem likely to accomplish its purpose. It may even prove counterproductive. Perhaps the real importance of Mr. Bush's trip lies not in what he is saying to the Europeans but what they are saying to him and what he in turn tells the American President.

We trust Mr. Bush is listening.

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