Gorbachev tosses Europe an arms challenge

After handing the United States new proposals for nuclear arms reductions, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has now offered Europeans a challenge. Speaking yesterday before the Foreign Affairs Commission of the French National Assembly, Mr. Gorbachev proposed separate arms negotiations with France and Britain, stepped up pressure on the Dutch to refuse deployment of US missiles, and confirmed that his offer for 50 percent cuts concerned Western, though not Soviet, medium-range weapons. The Soviet leader once again spoke out against the US space-based defense program, commonly called ``star wars,'' but was vague on whether he would dema nd the end of all US military space research.

Mr. Gorbachev's proposals center on the following:

Instead of including the French and British nuclear arsenals in its negotiations with the US, as the Soviet Union has demanded before, Gorbachev called for direct negotiations. ``The Soviet Union is prepared,'' he told the French Parliament, for ``a direct dialogue with France just as with Britain.'' By separating agreements on medium-range weapons in Europe from ``the problem of space and strategic arms,'' the Soviet leader said these moves would help unblock the negotiating stalemate at Geneva. But they also might increase fears of a split among NATO allies.

Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union has dismantled the extra SS-20 missiles it deployed since June, 1984 following the installation of US missiles in Europe. At the same time, Gorbachev said that ``the stationary installations for housing these missiles will be dismantled within the next two months.'' Such a move seems aimed at the Dutch government, which has linked the deployment of US missiles to the deployment of additional Soviet missiles.

Gorbachev confirmed that ``a few days ago we proposed to the government of the United States to come to terms on the total prohibition of space-strike arms for both sides and to reduce radically, by 50 percent, the nuclear arms capable of reaching each other's territory.'' By specifying arms capable of reaching each other's territory, Gorbachev means that the Soviet Union wants to count the US Pershing and Cruise missiles in Europe that are capable of striking the Soviet Union, but not Soviet SS-20 we apons, which can only hit European targets. Whether he also meant a ``total prohibition'' on space military research was left unclear.

As of this writing, there was no official reaction to the Soviet proposals. US and French officials here said they were studying the proposals.

The French and British have long said they will only negotiate about their nuclear force after the superpowers have made significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals. They argue that their forces are independent -- not needed to counterbalance just the Russian SS-20s, but all Soviet nuclear weapons.

The Soviet reply is direct. As Yuli Kvitsinsky, a negotiator on space weapons at the Geneva arms talks, explained at a press conference here yesterday, ``we negotiated with the Americans for two years, and then when we started to talk about the French and British weapons, the Americans said they can't negotiate for the French and British.''

Gorbachev added, ``It was said from the French side that the nuclear forces of France are not subject to discussion without her participation. This stands to reason. It follows from this that it is time to start between us a direct dialogue.''

The other Soviet proposal concerning continental medium-range weapons and strategic weapons was presented in a similar fashion. Because Gorbachev said the Soviet Union now had unilaterally reduced the number of medium-range SS-20 missiles targeting Europe deployed to 243, the US should unilaterally refrain from its plan for ``further deployment of missiles on the European continent.''

This may cause problems for the US and the Netherlands. The Dutch were scheduled to deploy new US missiles in the near future. Its government made a decision on accepting those missiles contingent on whether the number of Soviet SS-20 missiles deployed increased. Whether the deployment of US missiles will now go ahead thus becomes unclear.

Other factors also remain unclear. Exactly what US weapons do the Soviets want to count?

Mr. Kvitsinsky suggested that the Soviets would continue to include US F-16 jets, which can carry nuclear weapons, as ``medium-range'' weapons. He also suggested that the Soviets would still want to include French and British weapons in the US calculation in some way so ``the US doesn't have four countries-worth of weapons versus our own.''

In closing his speach, Gorbachev said it ``is absurd'' to say that ``we want . . . to set [Western Europe] at loggerheads with the United States. We want good relations not only with Western Europe, but also with the United States.''

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