Gorbachev seen as playing to European public opinion. Missile freeze coincides with US and Dutch visits
Moscow — As a spring snow dusted Moscow, the Kremlin watched the flurry of reaction to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's first major foreign policy initiative. The weather may have been coincidental, but Moscow clearly had its eye on the calendar when it responded positively to an offer for a superpower summit, unveiled a proposal for a moratorium on medium-range missile deployments in Europe, and called for a nuclear ``freeze'' and a ban on space weapons research while arms control negotiations continue in Geneva.
Mr. Gorbachev's proposals -- his first in the foreign policy arena since taking office nearly a month ago -- were unveiled in an interview in Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper.
The Easter weekend saw the revival of antinuclear protests in many European countries, something the Kremlin doubtless had in mind when it scheduled the publication of Gorbachev's words.
The moratorium on European missile deployments that he outlined expires in November -- the same month the Dutch government has set as a deadline for deciding whether it will go ahead with the deployment of new NATO cruise missiles.
Not coincidentally, Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek arrives in Moscow today for a hastily arranged consultation with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The NATO missile deployments and the Soviet moratorium will doubtless be prime topics of conversation.
And a visiting US congressional delegation, headed by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, is likely to meet Gorbachev in the Kremlin on Wednesday. Both Mr. O'Neill and a Soviet official indicated they will be exploring ways of improving US-Soviet relations.
Each of these meetings will present an opportunity for the Kremlin to underline its own disarmament proposals and challenge Washington to respond to them.
While the initial Washington reaction to Gorbachev's proposals was cool, the White House promised to study Gorbachev's proposals and fully respond later. But while the Kremlin waits, so does the White House.
Significantly, Gorbachev did not set a date or place for a summit meeting with President Reagan, which both want to hold. Thus, the Kremlin lays down a number of diplomatic challenges to Washington -- while holding back its blessing for the face-to-face meeting that Reagan has been seeking.
While repeating several standard Soviet formulations, Gorbachev also covered a wide range of topics: a US-Soviet summit, a moratorium on ``the development, including research, testing, and deployment'' of space-based weapons systems, and a temporary halt to deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
Gorbachev said the Soviet Union would halt other unspecified ``countermeasures'' it took against the deployment of new NATO Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe. Western analysts speculate that the countermeasures to which he referred are the deployment of new, medium-range SS-22 missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. But the analysts say those missiles are already in place and doubt that new deployments were scheduled. Thus, they doubt that Gorbachev's pledge will make any real difference on the ground.
Similarly, they have doubts about his unilateral moratorium on European missile deployments. They say the number of Soviet medium-range SS-20 missiles, now more than 400, already poses a substantial threat to Western Europe.
The analysts also note that there is nothing to prevent continued buildup of SS-20s targeted on China. Thus, they suggest, the moratorium -- lasting some eight months -- will also have little practical effect on the overall nuclear balance.
The White House says that a nuclear ``freeze'' would only solidify a Soviet advantage, while hobbling NATO's efforts to overcome that advantage.
The cool White House reaction to the claim that a freeze would only preserve Soviet superiority is ``an unobjective view, to put it mildly, or a gross lie, to put it straightly,'' Tass said.
Tass added that ``instead of coming to the right conclusions and accepting Soviet proposals, Washington strives to draw the USSR into a new round of the arms race in order to achieve military superiority over it. . . .''
Washington had ``ignored'' yet another ``logical and clear call'' for easing the arms race, Tass said.