WASHINGTON — AS Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev struggles to hold power at home, the United States and the Soviet Union are continuing to bicker over the monumental treaty to cut conventional forces in Europe signed by 22 nations in Vienna last November. At issue is whether certain weapons the Soviets say are assigned to Coast Guard, naval infantry, and strategic rocket units should be covered by treaty limits. Moscow, perhaps under pressure from the military, says ``no.'' US officials say ``yes,'' and have refused to submit the treaty for Senate ratification until the dispute is resolved.
In recent weeks President Gorbachev has softened the Soviet stance. A compromise may be in the works. But for now US officials insist that the Kremlin still has to move farther. ``It's not going to cut it to work around the margins,'' says a US arms control official.
The numbers involved are not large, particularly in the context of a treaty that would result in the Red Army reducing its forces that threaten Europe by some 20,000 pieces of heavy weaponry. The naval and Coast Guard units have some 3,700 tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces the US says should be subject to the treaty; the strategic rocket forces have 1,700 armored vehicles.
Perhaps the thorniest problem is posed by the sea service weapons - the bulk of which belong to the Coast Guard. The Soviets say they are not subject to cuts because the Conventional Forces in Europe pact specifically exempts naval forces. The US and other signatories to the treaty reply that CFE covers all ground equipment from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains - and that those weapons were assigned to the Navy and Coast Guard very recently.
The US says it won't budge because of the principle of the thing. The Soviets have said they're exasperated because the US won't even try to see things their way. The result has been deadlock on progress toward ratification and implementation of the CFE treaty, even though it's already been signed. ``Our view is we really don't have a treaty right now,'' says the US official.
Recent communications between Gorbachev and President Bush have held out some hope for a solution.
According to US officials, the Soviets still say the naval forces are not covered. But they have offered to remove an amount of equipment equal to the disputed Coast Guard weapons from the areas where the units are based, and ship it beyond the Urals.
In essence, Gorbachev is saying ``in the end, numerically, I'm going to be in compliance,'' says David Shorr, associate director of BASIC, an arms control research group.
The naval infantry and strategic rocket ground weapons would not be covered by this offer. And the Soviets have not said if the weapons they are offering to remove would come from storage or active units, and if they would be destroyed or simply parked.
The Bush administration is reportedly preparing a response to the Soviet offer. If the two sides can reach agreement on CFE, it would remove a major source of irritation from superpower relations and help clear the way from completion of a START treaty that would make deep reductions in strategic nuclear forces.