Andropov drops tantalizing hints on missile cuts

Moscow has leaked another in a series of hints it might eventually move to meet a key US concern in talks on limiting European nuclear forces. The worry is that the Soviets, under proposed arms reductions, would simply reposition mobile SS-20 missiles targeted at Western Europe, rather than destroy or dismantle them.

Even with the Soviet hints at flexibility, there is no public signal the superpowers are nearing agreement on missile destruction - much less on how many weapons each side would shelve as part of an agreement.

The Soviets have implied readiness to consider compromise with their US negotiating partners yet have avoided any major, explicit concession to Western insistence that all medium-range Soviet missiles be physically scrapped.

Some Western diplomats suspect the Kremlin hopes to encourage public pressure on the US to reciprocate at the Geneva negotiating table.

The US has so far stood firm on its opening proposal, announced in late 1981 and rejected by Moscow as unacceptably one-sided. The US position is that Moscow must scrap its entire medium-range missile force, in swap for NATO's abandoning plans to deploy new US rockets in Europe beginning late this year.

The Geneva talks are due to resume in February.

The latest Soviet move came in a Jan. 11 meeting with visiting US congressmen and was, as Moscow surely expected, later passed on to reporters.

The Soviets' senior negotiators from Geneva are said to have told the Americans Moscow would ''consider'' destroying some missiles removed from the European part of the USSR under an eventual Geneva accord.

US sources said the Russians did not specify how many of the late-vintage SS- 20 missiles might be affected; nor did they indicate whether the ''destruction'' would apply to SS-20s or only to older, analogous, but less potent rockets. There was no suggestion, the sources said, that Moscow was softening its contention that SS-20s currently based in the Asian part of the country must not be included in reductions.

But, a US source said, ''the context in which the Soviet officials were speaking clearly implied they were talking about possible destruction of at least some SS-20s.''

Late last month, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov offered publicly to remove ''dozens'' of SS-20s from the European part of the country, as part of a negotiating proposal leaving 162 of them there. This number equals the total British and French missile force.

But Mr. Andropov stopped short of US proposals for scrapping the SS-20 force and left open the possibility the missiles might simply be repositioned in the Asian part of the Soviet Union.

As early as February of last year, the Soviets hinted that compromise on the missile-scrapping issue might eventually be possible. A statement published Feb. 9, 1982, listed a number of principles that should characterize an eventual accord.

''The main method of the reduction (of medium-range nuclear carriers based in Europe) will be their destruction,'' it said, adding: ''this does not exclude the possibility of withdrawing a certain part of the armaments behind some agreed (geographical) lines.''

The wording of the Soviet negotiators' remarks to the US congressmen is said to have been ''similar'' to the February 1982 statement.

''The difference is that the earlier statement gave no hint any SS-20s, rather than older medium-range missiles, might be scrapped, . . .'' said a US source. ''The suggestion this time was that the remarks on destroying missiles referred in part to the SS-20s Andropov offered to reduce.''

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