Western allies maneuver to respond to Soviet arms offers. European zone free of tanks could help NATO, says Brzezinski

Is there life after INF? As Moscow and Washington intensify talks on eliminating medium-range and shorter-range missiles from Europe, concerns persist over the political consequences of an INF (intermediate-range nuclear forces) agreement.

Fears among allies and many US lawmakers about a ``denuclearization'' of Europe, which would leave NATO confronting superior Soviet conventional forces, is stirring thinking about how to respond to what are expected to be continuing Soviet disarmament moves.

Former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski says that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is likely to renew his call for eliminating not only medium-range and short-range missiles from Europe, but all tactical battlefield nuclear weapons, proposing a ``third zero'' to the ``zero-zero'' formula.

US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze are expected to meet in July to help spur negotiations on the double-zero INF proposal.

Assuming the Soviets move on ``triple zero,'' Dr. Brzezinski says, the Reagan administration should be ready with a counteroffer that addresses the problem of the imbalance in conventional forces. Brzezinski proposes the establishment of a tank-free zone in Central Europe.

``The Soviets over the years have made hay by proposing a nuclear-free zone in Europe, which is part of the effort to denuclearize Europe,'' Brzezinski told reporters this week. ``I think we could score political points and emphasize the linkage between battlefield nuclear weapons and conventional forces by proposing that any reduction in battlefield nuclear weapons be tied immediately to a large and symmetrical reduction in tank forces of both sides, because it is the massed tank formations that pose the greatest threat of a sudden conventional attack.''

A tank-free zone in Central Europe - including West Germany, the Benelux countries, East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and perhaps Hungary - would be a good response to the Soviet nuclear-free-zone proposal, the former Carter official says. ``We would have a situation in which any reintroductions of Soviet tanks would give us enormous warning time [against a sudden attack],'' he says.

The proposed INF agreement has aroused vigorous debate at home and abroad. The departing NATO commander, Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, continues to oppose such an accord, charging it will weaken NATO's defenses in the face of Soviet conventional superiority. Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, argues that the battlefield nuclear weapons remaining in Europe after INF are actually the most dangerous because, in the event of a Soviet attack, NATO commanders would quickly resort to them, touching of a nuclear exchange.

In the arms control community there appears to be broad support for linking reductions in battlefield nuclear weapons to reductions in conventional forces, above all, tanks. ``Tanks focus on a useful unit of counting, and it's tanks that people argue about and that have offensive capability,'' says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.

While not necessarily buying the idea of a tank-free zone, many arms experts favor negotiations, parallel with the INF talks or subsequent to them, to achieve a gradual reduction in tactical nuclear weapons as conventional forces are thinned out on each side.

Michael MccGwire, an expert at the Brookings Institution, says the Soviets are moving toward a defensive military posture in Europe and so are willing to eliminate nuclear weapons. ``If they have to make concessions on conventional forces to get this, they will because their military requirements have changed.''

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