Maneuvering over date of a Reagan-Brezhnev summit

The presidents of the United States and the Soviet Union are now both on record as favoring some kind of summit meeting, but their exchange has served mostly to underscore the heavy odds against such an encounter any time soon.

The Soviets' contribution to the talk about talks, printed under Leonid Brezhnev's name in the April 18 edition of Pravda, also seemed only partly to dispel the latest round of rumors here concerning the health of the Kremlin leader.

The statement quoted Mr. Brezhnev as suggesting that October of this year might be ''suitable'' for a summit - the implication being that he would still be eminently equal to such an endeavor six months from now.

But the Soviets in effect rejected President Reagan's suggestion that a meeting with Mr. Brezhnev be held this June in New York, in conjunction with a United Nations conference on disarmament.

The Brezhnev reply recommended, instead, that the encounter take place in Western Europe, a detail most diplomats here took to mean the Soviet leader was not physically up to addressing the UN conference or to the rigors of a transatlantic summit journey.

US officials pointed to Brezhnev's frail health in explaining why his 1979 summit with then-President Carter was held in Austria, rather than in the US. Protocol would have dictated an American venue, since the last previous summit had been held in the USSR.

The Brezhnev statement that appeared April 18, like Mr. Reagan's initial suggestion April 5, stopped short of a formal and unequivocal summit proposal.

The immediate aims of the Soviet reply seem to have been to bat the idea back into the Americans' court and to signal, in the process, Moscow's displeasure at the way in which Mr. Reagan's original suggestion was presented.

Recent private comments from Soviet officials indicate that the US leader's summit idea, dropped to news reporters in an informal question-and-answer session, was received here as a somewhat cavalier propaganda sally rather than as a step toward serious superpower negotiations.

Foreign diplomats suspect the Soviets were also irked by the timing of the Reagan remarks -- immediately following reports by some Western news organizations that Mr. Brezhnev had been hospitalized.

In the best spirit of superpower tit for tat, the Soviet reply was presented not as a set-piece statement, but as a ''conversation by Pravda's correspondent with Leonid Brezhnev.'' And like Mr. Reagan's comments, the key portion of the Soviet reply was diluted with an equivocal verb form or two.

''The [summit] meeting could be held in some third country, say in Finland or Switzerland,'' Mr. Brezhnev was quoted as having said. ''The autumn of this year, for instance, could be a suitable time for the meeting. . . .''

The Brezhnev reply also highlighted Soviet concern that Mr. Reagan's initial suggestion -- envisaging less than a ''full-blown'' summit, in his words -- did not necessarily foreshadow substantive progress on issues like arms control. A summit, the Soviet statement said, ''must be well prepared and held in a solid way, not incidentally in connection with this or that international forum.''

[UPI reports the White House response to the Soviet counterproposal was a statement that it would ''study'' the Soviet reply.

[Spokesman David Gergen said, ''We do not interpret his remarks as a rejection of the President's expressed hope that President Brezhnev would come to New York in June.''

[Gergen said Reagan is not abandoning his ''sincere hope'' of an informal meeting on nuclear disarmament with Brezhnev, although he will not agree at this time to a full summit conference. But he said Brezhnev's summit counterproposal will be studied ''carefully.'']

Most diplomats here looked for further public sparring on the summit issue -- with each superpower trying to convince the outside world, particularly West Europe, that the other is frustrating moves toward serious dialogue.

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