How long will the Kremlin continue to abide by the restrictions contained in the unratified SALT II treaty? Moscow isn't saying, but it has just hinted that the longer the Senate delay, the greater the risks to the United and the world.
The issue of which rules apply to the strategic nuclear arms race deeply troubles the top levels of the Carter administration. The Soviets are also believed to be giving the issue serious thought.
As usual, the Kremlin conceals its own intentions. But its latest public statement, issued via the news agency Tass, in an effort to pressure the Senate by warning that mere verbal assurances that the US will abide by SALT II, as though it had been ratified, are simply not enough.
At the moment, SALT I has expired (back in October 1977). SALT II is stalled in the Senate at the President's request following the Soviet move into Afghanistan.
Even before that, the treaty had been in deep trouble in the Senate -- a fact the Soviets may well have counted on before moving into Afghanistan.
Some low-level, unofficials US sounding out of Soviet thinking has already taken place here. Now the public Soviet response is to take the offensive, to brand the Carter administration as "ambiguous" on SALT, and to say the treaty can come into force only by formal ratification, not by US verbal assurances that its spirit prevails.
The implication: The longer the US delays, the greater the risks of new arms spiral.
In fact, Moscow is though unlikely to breach SALT II provisions seriously, at least for the time being. The US response in an election year would be even more arms programs of its own. And it would be more difficult for the Soviets to obtain future limits on the US cruise missile in the next round of talks (SALT III).
The Soviets say privately the US eventually will cool off and return to SALT because there is no alternative in the long run. But the US is worried because the Soviets could easily build more nuclear launchers between now and 1982 than the US can build -- and thus strengthen their diplomatic bargaining strength around the world.
For their part the Soviets are offended at seeing ratification of SALT II delayed after seven years of negotiation.
The strength of the Soviet case depends on the perception of the person judging it:
Those who believe Mr. Carter was right when he used to say SALT was too important to be linked to any other issue (he continued SALT talks in June 1978 even while dissident Anatoly Shcharansky and Alexander Ginzberg were actually on trial) say Moscow has a legitimate cause for complaint now.
Mr. Carter reversed his stand after Afghanistan and help up SALT ratification to "punish" Moscow.
But those who say the Soviets must be punished in some way argue the Soviets have only themselves to blame. If they wanted SALT, they should not have put troops into Afghanistan.
Soviet officials sae the troule SALT was in any and may have felt the SALT II treaty was dead until 1981 anyway. Now Tass notes Mr. Carter has repeated his commitments to arms control in his annual message to Congress on the arms-control and disarmament agency. But Mr. Carter was "ambiguous" because he wanted arms control on the one hand, but on the other, delayed SALT II in the Senate because of "some alleged unfavorable and political conditions."
TAss did not mention the word "Afghanistan."
Even before the suspension, Tass said, Mr. Carter had "used" the ratification process to adopt the Mx Mobile-missile system. It also figured in his decision to install new medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
Mr. Carter had said he would act as though SALT II had been ratified, but "who needs such gestures?" The US had already broken its word on international agreements (a reference to the US grain embargo and other moves).
In fact, the Soviets were glad to see the Carter assurance, though their officials were irritated at the White House. In making the announcement recently, Washington added it assumed Moscow fel the same way. Moscow wanted to be consulted as it had been when SALT I was about to expire.
For public consumption Moscow wants ratification as soon as possible. It also says it will discuss arms in Europe (the intended focus of SALT III) if the decision to install medium-range missiles there is canceled or officially suspended.
But as long as Soviet troops stay in Afghanistan, the Senate won't be in any mood to ratify SALT II, especially not in an election year.
This raises the risk that Washington and Moscow might both come up with even more sophisticated strategic weapons in the meantime, harder to regulate and control.
The outlook here on Afghanistan is gloomy: Western diplomats say the Soviet are demanding a US guarantee that all "interference" in Afghanistan will stop. The Soviets will have to put in many more troops to contain the rebels.
But they cannot accept the "neutrality" proposal offered by Europe for fear of rousing hopes in Eastern Europe, Mongolia, and elsewhere that the Soviet hold on the socialist world is weakening.
AS with dissidents, so with Afghanistan: The Kremlin fears one slight step backward, one small show of flexibility, will prove fatal for its own self-perceived need for iron and total control.