Arms violations: an election-year dilemma

The Reagan administration is in a delicate diplomatic and political situation regarding alleged Soviet violations of arms control treaties. It suspects - and in some cases is sure - that Moscow has broken a number of agreements, including those covering strategic nuclear arms, ballistic missile defenses, nuclear weapons testing, and chemical and biological treaties. Yet it does not want to appear too tough at a time when the war-peace issue is an important factor in the presidential campaign.

For this reason, it is delaying release of a presidential advisory commission's report on treaty violations until after the politically valuable meeting between President Reagan and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko later this month.

The political touchiness of the issue is made clear in a survey of public attitudes by Daniel Yankelovich and the Public Agenda Foundation. The survey found that 61 percent of those polled agree that the Soviets have ''cheated on every treaty they've ever signed.'' Yet the same percentage favors a six-month unilateral freeze on United States nuclear weapons development ''to see if the Soviets follow suit, even though they might take advantage.''

The administration is in another bind on the issue. Officials have described the SALT II treaty as ''fatally flawed'' and have not sought Senate ratification of this agreement limiting strategic arms. Even though the US is abiding by the treaty, officials have acknowledged that deployment of the planned new single-warhead Midgetman mobile missile could not be done within the constraints of SALT II.

Prominent spokesmen, including Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, also have suggested recently that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty might have to be changed, if not scrapped, if the President's strategic defense initiative is deployed in space.

''We're going to have to face it sooner or later, and the administration's not ready to face it yet,'' says Colin Gray, a member of the presidentially appointed General Advisory Commission on Arms Control and Disarmament. The group wrote the report on Soviet violations.

Thus, the President and his advisers know they can't be too vocal about treaties they might wish to ignore. Still, Mr. Reagan must address the issue. He is being pressed by conservative Republican senators, and the Republican Party platform adopted in Dallas criticizes ''Carter-Mondale efforts to cover up Soviet violations.''

''We insist on full Soviet compliance with all treaties and executive agreements,'' the GOP delegates declared.

The Soviet Union is charged with building two new types of intercontinental ballistic missile (SALT II allows only one), conducting more powerful atomic test explosions than the Threshold Test Ban Treaty allows, and failing to transmit missile test data so the US can verify compliance.

Many of the allegations are challenged by arms control proponents. And some charges of noncompliance illustrate the imprecision that can occur in an agreement.

On some points, however, critics of the administration agree that there are serious questions about Soviet actions. For example, US intelligence satellites discovered last year that the Soviet Union is building a large radar system in central Siberia that may violate the ABM treaty by being part of a nationwide missile defense system. Under the ABM agreement, such radars are only allowed on the nation's periphery for early warning.

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