Serious arms negotiation cannot take place publicly. So it may be assumed that Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's offer on nuclear Euromissiles is designed more as a political maneuver than as a negotiating position. Mr. Andropov made his offer at a dinner in honor of East German leader Erich Honecker, and there is little doubt it is designed above all to try to sway West German opinion. His hope is that enough public pressure can be brought to bear on the Kohl government to influence US policy and prevent deployment of the new NATO medium-range missiles, scheduled to begin in December of this year.
Political considerations notwithstanding, Mr. Andropov's new bid does represent an encouraging step forward in the US-Soviet effort to work out an agreement on Euromissiles. For the first time the Soviet Union has stated its willingness to negotiate equal ceilings on nuclear warheads in Europe; previously Moscow had called for equality only in missile launchers - which would give it the edge because the Soviet SS-20 missiles have three warheads each. Inasmuch as it is warheads that carry the destructive power, making them central in calculating the East-West balance makes sense. That is therefore a significant Soviet concession and the Reagan administration has duly welcomed it.
As with any public offer, however, the Soviet proposal leaves many questions unanswered. It says nothing, for example, about whether Moscow would include the missiles in Asia or whether it would scrap the mobile SS-20 European launchers or simply move them to the Asian theater. There are other ambiguities as well. Yet there is enough give in the Soviet position to warrant detailed discussion - and a counterproposal from the United States - when the superpowers resume their negotiations in Geneva on May 17.
It does not seem reasonable, for instance, for the US to continue refusing to negotiate limits on the non-NATO British and French missile or bomber forces or to refuse to allow the Soviet Union to keep some missiles targeted on the Far East. Mr. Andropov insists on both, and from the Soviet standpoint that is not surprising. The independent British and French forces may pose little threat to the USSR at present, but Britain and France are embarked on a massive modernization program that will add hundreds of warheads to their arsenals. The Russians can hardly ignore those weapons. By similar logic, the Soviet concern about a threat from the Far East also will have to be taken into account.
This is not to absolve the Soviet leadership of having created the current arms problem in Europe to begin with. If the Russians had not begun installing their controversial SS-20s - after they had already stated that a nuclear balance existed in Europe - they would not now be faced with the prospective deployment of new NATO missiles capable of reaching Soviet targets in a matter of minutes. Thus the onus is also on them to negotiate, and it can be said that, without NATO resolve to proceed with the deployment of 572 Pershing II and cruise missiles, there would be no incentive for Mr. Andropov to talk.
But it is clear that, to reach an arms control agreement, both sides will have to compromise - the United States no less than the Soviet Union. Certainly this is the direction in which most Europeans and Americans want the superpowers to move. In the United States the pastoral letter just approved by the Roman Catholic bishops denouncing nuclear war as well as the strong support in the US House of Representatives for a bilateral nuclear freeze point to the depth of concern about the present arms buildup - and a desire to do something about it. In West Germany the Catholic bishops recently took a more cautious stand on nuclear arms, but they too came out in favor of arms control.
With his latest bid, Mr. Andropov not only courts the Europeans but opens the next chapter in the US-Soviet negotiations. The public on both sides of the Atlantic can hope it will be a chapter marked by bona fide bargaining and successful signing of an agreement.