NATO allies huddle over reply to latest Soviet missile proposal

The US and its European allies are harmoniously back on track on the issue of Euromissiles after the flap caused by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's recent visit to Moscow.

Since the visit -- and without much publicity -- US Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher has visited Bonn and NATO headquarters in Brussels to discuss the next step toward talks with the Soviet Union on controlling Euromissiles. And Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin has called at the State Department to give the US government the Soviet version of what President Brezhnev has said on the subject to Mr. Schmidt in Moscow. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher earlier had flown to Washington, almost directly from Moscow, to give the US his account of the Schmidt-Brezhnev talks.

Euromissiles are the nuclear weapons based in Europe with which either the NATO allies could hit the Soviet heartland or the Soviet Union could hit targets in West Germany and other European members of the Atlantic alliance. They are not included in either the SALT I or SALT II treaties. Those treaties cover intercontinental missiles, which the US or the USSR could fire at each other from their respective sides of the Atlantic or Arctic oceans.

There has long been tacit agreement that the next stage in controlling nuclear weapons, provided SALT II is ratified, must cover Euromissiles. From the Western allies' point of view, the snag about this next step has been that, as of now, the Soviets would be negotiating from a position of marked superiority provided by their new SS-20 ballistic missiles, now being deployed in Europe.

Last December, NATO agreed on a policy to redress the balance and to give the Atlantic allies some leverage in any eventual negotiations with the Soviet Union on controlling Euromissiles. The policy centered on installing in Europe for the first time both cruise missles and Pershing II missiles. This decision was accompanies by a call for negotiations with the USSR for reductions in Euromissiles on both sides.

Moscow's immediate response was that no negotiations were possible unless NATO revoked its cruise and Pershing II missile decision. The Kremlin, wanting to keep its SS-20 advantage, apparently counted on neutralist leanings among some of the youth in Schmidt's Social Democratic Party and among segments of Belgian and Dutch public opinion force NATO to go back its decided.

The Soviet leadership knew, too, that Schmidt had to face an election later this year and perhaps calculated he might have to make concessions to the young socialists in the interest of his party's unity. But Schmidt has held the line. Despite some ambiguities (at least in US eyes) in some of his campaign speeches, his commitment is firm to NATO's establishment of a long-range theater nuclear force (LRTNF), as the experts call NATOhs Euromissiles.

Mr. Brezhnev therefore decided to backtrack from his initial "no" to NATO's call for talks on controlling Euromissiles. His problem was how to do this gracefully without losing too much face. His answer was through Chancellow Schmidt. This route was all the more appealing since the Kremlin has long seen Germany as the key to its European policy -- and perhaps West Germany as some day the thin end of a wedge for widening divisions between the US and its allies in Europe.

Administration officials here say that they never doubted Schmidt's personal commitment to LRTNF. But they were initially concerned lest any apparent ambiguity on his part in others' eyes (particularly in Belguim and the Netherlands) cause the LRTNF decision of last December to unravel.

In Moscow, Schmidt stood his ground -- on both LRTNF and Afghanistan. On the latter, Brezhnev was unyielding. But on the missile question, Brezhnev offered an opening. He said negotiations on controlling Euromissiles could begin without NATO reversing its LRTNF decision. There remained a catch. The Soviet leader slipped in some new conditions, the most significant of which is that the talks should include what are called US forward-base systems (FBS). These are the nuclear weapons carried by US aircraft or submarines operating in the US theater. The original NATO call for talks did not include these. It covered only land-based missiles in Europe on both sides.

The immediate need is for the US and its allies in Europe to work out an agreed position on FBS in response to Brezhnev. This is what Deputy Secretary Christopher talked about in Bonn and Brussels. And discussions on the subject, centering on agreed definitions, are likely to continue through the summer. Thus an opening of any formal negotiations with the Soviets is unlikely before the US presidential election in November -- for technical as well as US domestic political reasons.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.