START starts: warm opening despite cold war

When United States negotiator Edward Rowny shook hands with Soviet representative Viktor Karpov in Geneva June 29, the strategic arms control dialogue resumed after a hiatus of three years.

In the interim detente had soured, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, the Polish free trade union Solidarity had risen and fallen, the US had refused to ratify SALT II and had elected a president who valued American military strength over arms control, the antinuclear movement had burgeoned in the West, and the Soviet Union had moved closer to its succession struggle.

It was one of those historic occasions that attentive publics welcome, on balance, but don't really celebrate.

The first meeting of the chief arms control negotiators, General Rowny told reporters afterward, was ''cordial,'' ''businesslike,'' ''frank,'' and ''earnest.'' It established the ''modalities'' (biweekly meetings, alternating between the Soviet mission and the US mission's botanic building). It left substantive business to the first plenary session of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) teams June 30.

It also gave Rowny an opportunity to read to Karpov a letter from President Reagan wishing his chief negotiator godspeed in ''one of the most important tasks of our age.'' In the letter Reagan called the START negotiations ''an historic opportunity'' to reverse their arms confrontation and ''enhance deterrence and stability.''

The last time the two superpowers came together in the strategic arms field was in Vienna on June 18, 1979. On that summer day Jimmy Carter, then US president, and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev signed the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement (SALT II) that had been under negotiation for almost seven years.

That unratified treaty has been in limbo ever since, with presidential candidate Reagan calling it ''fatally flawed.'' The current START negotiator, General Rowny, had quit the American SALT delegation a few days before the signing to protest what he regarded as Soviet advantages in it.

Will START I fare any better than SALT II? Timing suggests that it can't. Political will suggests that it just might.

The crucial element in timing is the proximity both of US presidential elections and the Soviet succession.

Twice before, in 1980 and 1976, US presidential campaigns overwhelmed the politically sensitive SALT II in the US. And the highly complex START I, which aspires to the first superpower agreement on radical reductions of existing weapons (rather than simply ceilings or marginal cuts), can hardly be negotiated in the little more than a year before the 1984 campaign opens and again roils the arms control debate. SALT I took three long years to negotiate; SALT II, 61/ 2 longer years.

On the Soviet side the impending succession makes it even less likely that the leadership could commit itself to radical new departures in arms control. Western Kremlinologists generally regard the very conservative consensus politics of the present Kremlin gerontocracy as resistant to innovation.

And while the mainstream of Kremlinologists think that ''detente'' has been sufficiently institutionalized in the Soviet Union to survive the end of Brezhnev's almost two-decade rule, they do not think that the expected three- to five-year power struggle will encourage major foreign policy initiative in the post-Brezhnev period.

Nonetheless, some signs of political will for a new arms control accommodation are appearing on both sides. The Reagan administration contends that precisely because it is showing determination to build up America's military muscle, Moscow now has a strong incentive to restrain the American buildup -- and Washington can therefore now return to the negotiating table in the hope of getting some Soviet concessions.

From a different point of view, traditional arms control advocates note that the Reagan administration has by now felt the hard political and fiscal limits on its desired military expansion and the strength of the popular antinuclear movement. They therefore contend that the American administration itself has been sobered into realizing the possible benefits of mutual agreed restraint.

Whatever the correct explanation, the Reagan administration is certainly showing more interest now than 1 1/2 years ago in an arms control policy that could entail compromise with the Russians. The signals of this were the quiet American downplaying of ''linkage'' and Reagan's Eureka College speech May 9 setting forth the US strategic arms control position.

''Linkage'' of arms control negotiations with general Soviet behavior in the world administered the coup de grace to SALT II ratification when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. It induced the early Reagan administration -- which then viewed negotiations as a reward to the Soviet Union -- to insist last year that it would not reopen arms control talks with Moscow so long as the Soviet Union was misbehaving abroad.

In its latest manifestation, linkage threatened to scuttle the projected START talks in the wake of the Polish declaration of martial law. It was only Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. who rescued them, stating along with Reagan that the START talks were so essential for our security that they had to proceed even if confrontation marked superpower relations in other fields. Since last January, administration talk of linkage has faded, and the June 29 opening of the START negotiations essentially holds to Reagan's pre-Poland timetable.

Much less is known about Soviet thinking on arms control at this point. Conspicuously, however, Moscow has not rejected out of hand the new American proposal of substantial missile cuts.

It is not yet clear just how the Soviet caution should be interpreted. It might indicate seriousness about negotiations. It might be no more than a public relations ploy to persuade European antinuclear movements of Soviet peaceableness. Various Reagan administration officials argue that the proper interpretation is that the Kremlin is worried about being outspent militarily by the robust US economy and fears the next surge of US military technology. In this view the Soviet empire is facing crises in both economic and nationalities issues and needs a period of superpower calm.

STRATEGIC ARMS TALLY United Soviet States Union Total delivery vehicles:* 2,100 2,700 ICBMs 1,050 1,400 SLBMs 950 Bombers 400 350 ICBM warheads 2,100 5,100 Total warheads & bombs 9,000 8,500 Total warheads on missles 7,500 7,500 * Including intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], submarine-launched ballistic missiles [SLBMs], and bombers.

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