THE best way to get a grip on Mikhail Gorbachev's latest proposal about nuclear weapons is to start with one key fact. The United States has 278 intermediate-range nuclear missiles deployed in Europe. Every one of these can reach western Russia, and 128 of them can reach beyond Moscow.
The Soviets have many more (441 of the SS-20 model) deployed in Europe and Asia with greater range and each carrying three warheads, but none of them can reach the contiguous US.
In other words the Soviets are unhappy about the US's being able to reach much of western Russia itself with intermediate-range weapons while they can reach the main part of the US only with their long-range weapons.
Another way of putting it is that intermediate-range weapons give the US one type of nuclear pressure on the Soviets which is not balanced by a similar type of Soviet pressure on the US.
Considering the total number of nuclear warheads the two superpowers can throw at each other, this factor of the intermediate-range ones is of relatively minor importance. The US has 12,846 warheads mounted on the vehicles of its long-range weapons, as against 10,716 for the Soviets. Adding the intermediates to the totals increases the disparity in favor of the US. The US has a total, with the intermediates, of 13,124 warheads that could hit part or all of the Soviet Union, as against the 10,716 Soviet warheads aimed at the 48 lower states of the US.
The difference is enough to give the Soviets a motive for wanting to get rid of the intermediates if they can do so at an affordable price.
The NATO commander, US Gen. Bernard Rogers, has that same reason to prefer to keep the intermediates. He controls the American intermediates. The advantage of having those 278 extra warheads helps to compensate to him for the heavy advantage the Soviets have in conventional weapons in the European theater (tanks and infantry divisions).
If the US made a deal with the Soviets to eliminate all the intermediate missiles - the new Gorbachev proposal - General Rogers or his successor (he is leaving in June) would want a decided improvement in conventional weapons to make up for the loss. It is unlikely that the NATO powers would put up enough new money for new tanks and increased infantry divisions to compensate for the loss of their present relative advantage in the intermediates.
The net of it is that the Soviets are undoubtedly sincere in wanting a deal that would eliminate the intermediate-range weapons from the order of battle of the two sides in Europe. A straight deal eliminating those weapons would be to their advantage.
The Soviets' existing disadvantage in intermediates is of their own making. They introduced the SS-20 intermediates to the European theater starting in 1977. Those weapons, with a range of 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles), can reach every NATO capital and every NATO base in Western Europe. They can also reach the whole of North Africa.
The US answer to the SS-20s came beginning in 1983 with the Pershing 2 and ground-launched cruise missiles. They are of much shorter range. The cruise missiles are good for 2,500 km and the Pershing 2s for 1,800 km. But that is enough to reach the weapons and troops the Soviets deploy for use in the European theater. In 1983 the Soviets mounted one of their greatest-ever propaganda campaigns to dissuade the European members of NATO from allowing the new American intermediates from being deployed in Western Europe.
The serious question about this new Gorbachev initiative in arms control is therefore what the Soviets will pay for getting rid of the intermediates. As a straight deal, the so-called zero option would be to the disadvantage of the West. It is of course up to the negotiators at Geneva to try for a balanced deal in which the Soviets pay a proper price for something they want.
Meanwhile, the only thing that has happened is that Moscow has initiated another round of arms control talks.