Geneva — The chief United States negotiator in Soviet-American talks aiming at historic 50 percent cuts in strategic (long-range) offensive arsenals, thinks an agreement might be possible this year. In a rare on-the-record interview that seemed in part a response to increasingly public Soviet comments about the negotiations, Ronald F. Lehman said, ``We believe we could conclude a START [Strategic Arms Reductions Talks] treaty soon, perhaps even this year. But it would require the Soviet Union to step up to the big issues, such as sublimits.''
United States State Department spokesman Charles Redman said much the same thing July 31, the day the Soviets presented a draft treaty at the START negotiations in Geneva. Various American spokesmen have pressed for a public-relations advantage in presenting (a)Washington as the side prepared to move fast on final agreement; (b)Moscow as the side holding up a deal by artificially linking START to killing the US Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'') program.
Nonetheless, the conditional optimism expressed by Mr. Lehman has a new tone. ``Until the Soviet Union responded to our draft treaty with [one] of their own,'' he said, ``to say that we thought we could get a START treaty even by the end of this year was simply theoretical.''
``Now that they've put down their treaty, and we've had a chance to examine it, we can say that it's a practical possibility.''
Lehman cautioned, however, ``But there is a lot of work to be done, and it isn't going to be easy.''
According to Lehman, START negotiations are at the same stage now that the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) talks were at two months ago. There are some key outstanding issues that must be resolved at a political level, but in the meantime the negotiators can proceed with of writing up common treaty language in areas where the two sides agree or are approaching agreement. Then, if superpower leaders make the political breakthroughs to conclude a treaty, they could fill in the big blanks of the text at a summit.
The Soviet START draft keeps this option open, in paralleling the structure of the American draft submitted last May and picking up some of its specific language. Lehman comments, ``Their new treaty, while it shows no movement on the big issues, is nonetheless a straightforward and business-like presentation of their position and will permit us to remove a large amount of the underbrush, such that if agreement could be reached on the big issues, we should be able to conclude a full-fledged treaty in a reasonable period of time.... The truth is we have made tremendous progress in the last year, and we have a shot at it.''
Lehman sees a further positive sign in the fact that the Soviet Union has endorsed the ``acceleration'' of START negotiations that the US proposed.
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, meeting with overall chief US negotiator Max Kampelman in Geneva last week, agreed to increase the number of ``working groups'' in the START talks and to assign more people to the Soviet team, as the US had requested. Until now, the Soviet delegation in Geneva had been shifting negotiators back and forth between the START and INF talks, often leaving the START team short-handed.
The remaining big issues include sublimits, mobile missiles, sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), and verification.
Both sides agreed at the superpower summit at Reykjavik, Iceland, last October on the target of halving their strategic offensive arsenals to 1,600 launchers and 6,000 warheads. Under this total ceiling the US wants subceilings for each side of 4,800 ballistic missile warheads, of which only 3,330 may be land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), of which only 1,650 may be heavy ICBMs or have more than six warheads. The purpose of subceilings is to ensure that the most destabilizing weapons, capable of executing a disabling first strike on the adversary's missiles, are reduced proportionally to the total. Before Reykjavik the Soviet Union itself put forward various offers on sublimits, but it retracted these after the summit.
On mobile missiles, the US wants to ban them altogether, while the Soviet Union does not. On SLCMs, Moscow wants to limit nuclear SLCMs with ranges of over 600 kilometers to 400 each, while Washington opposes this, saying that it would actually cripple conventional SLCMs, since there is no way to distinguish between nuclear- and conventionally tipped cruises.
In a photo caption that accompanied a story on disarmament in the Aug. 11 Monitor, a man was incorrectly identified as US chief negotiator for long-range weapons, Ronald Lehman. The man in the photo is Alexei Obukhov, the Soviet deputy chief negotiator.