Arms talks: Will Soviets split West with 'peace offensive'?

The new Soviet leadership is expected to hang tough on arms control negotiations until next spring or summer, then mount a ''peace offensive'' to appeal to the West European antinuclear movement.

The post-Brezhnev Kremlin has not changed its outlook, in the opinion of a sampling of American and Western European officials. They believe that the same strategists are still in charge in Moscow since a transition team apparently took over the managing of foreign policy as Mr. Brezhnev's health worsened last spring.

The American view tends to be less specific on timing than the European view. One American version holds that new Soviet Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov may orchestrate the peace offensive more skillfully than his predecessors, and may begin to do so immediately. Another American view sees a constant pattern of a Soviet peace offensive since 1960 and detects no significant variation in this.

The Western European view - as articulated most clearly by the British and the West Germans - is more specific in the anticipated timing.

The Soviet focus, all sources consulted agree, will be on the Geneva talks on intermediate-range (European-theater) nuclear forces (INF) between the United States and the Soviet Union rather than on the American-Soviet strategic (START) talks being held in the same city. The reason for this is the Soviet priority on blocking the impending deployment of American missiles in Western Europe that could reach Soviet territory.

The NATO allies agreed in 1979 to deploy 572 single-warhead Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe from 1983-88 as an answer to the Soviets' by now approximately 216 three-warhead SS-20 missiles able to target Western Europe.

NATO's ''two-track'' talk-and-deploy decision forswore the new Western European deployments, however, if the Soviet Union would agree to dismantle its SS-20s - and this ''zero option'' has been the American proposal at the INF talks. The Soviets, by contrast, have been proposing a mutual ceiling of 300 nuclear launchers, taking no account of warheads, lumping missiles and aircraft together, and including the roughly 250 French and British nuclear weapons.

The Western proposal has so far been unacceptable to Moscow because it would require the Soviet Union to dismantle weapons that are already deployed as a trade-off with NATO weapons that don't yet exist. The Soviet proposal has been unacceptable to the West because it would permit the Soviet Union to keep all its 348 SS-20 warheads that can target Western Europe but would not allow the West any comparable land-based intermediate-range missiles beyond France's 18 (non-NATO) missiles.

So far there has been no wavering from these positions by either side. Up through round two of INF, however (lasting through early summer), the two sides were conspicuously avoiding polemics and making some progress on peripheral issues. Last month, however, chief Soviet negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky, in a manner that both sides had previously avoided at Geneva, charged the US with using the talks as a cover for military preparations. There has been no comparable shift in Soviet conduct at the START negotiations.

The European expectation of a Soviet peace offensive next spring or summer is linked to the European peace movements which are now dormant but are expected to gather momentum again from Easter on in the year of the first missile deployments. The presumption is that Moscow will try to block the new NATO missiles on the cheap, by defeating them through domestic opposition rather than through real Soviet military concessions. To this end, it is expected to offer the antinuclear movements some new variation on its old moratorium bid (since the full complement of SS-20s will have been deployed by then anyway).

Moscow is also expected to make a more sophisticated move to ''revitalize'' the INF negotiations themselves with partial concessions. Moscow could then argue that with progress in the talks, it would be a sign of bad faith for NATO to proceed with its initial missile deployments.

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