The big-power struggle for Europe intensifies
Moscow — The superpower battle between Washington and Moscow for West European opinion has reached a new level of intensity. Early in the week Moscow moved swiftly to counter President Reagan's bid to bolster his arms negotiating credibility within the Western alliance. The Soviets did so in the form of a prompt, carefully worded rejection of Mr. Reagan's proposal Monday for a summit to endorse an American blueprint for reducing European nuclear missiles.
On Wednesday the United States moved again, hinting at the possibility of eventual compromise on its blueprint. The hint came from Vice-President George Bush, who said during a visit to the Netherlands that Washington would carefully weigh any serious Soviet alternative to the US stand.
Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's rejection of Mr. Reagan's summit terms was less surprising for its content than for the speed, uncommonly quick by past Kremlin standards, with which it was announced.
The reply - which was printed in the Communist Party daily Pravda Wednesday but had been released by the Soviet news agency Tass late Tuesday - came less than 24 hours after the Reagan proposal was announced by Vice-President Bush, who is touring Western Europe.
In content, the Andropov statement turned down US terms for a
summit as a bid to force agreement to a US arms-negotiating stand, rejected here from the start as ''unequal.'' But the reply also endorsed the principlem of a summit and was phrased in generally restrained terms designed to avoid creating the impression of Kremlin intransigence.
Moscow sees the current European tour by Mr. Bush as part of a US bid to take the public initiative in superpower arms talks, and to shore up allied support for plans to deploy new US missiles if ongoing negotiations don't produce an acceptable arms-reduction accord.
The Soviets have moved publicly to cast the US as an inflexible foil for a more reasonable Soviet negotiating team at the current Geneva talks on limiting medium-range missiles in the European theater. In so doing, Moscow has sought to encourage both stirrings in Western Europe for amendment of the US negotiating stand and popular opposition there to deployment of the new US missiles.
Reacting rapidly to Mr. Bush's announcement of the US summit terms, the Kremlin has underscored its determination to prevent the US from capturing the public negotiating initiative in West Europe.
Mr. Reagan's proposal envisages a superpower summit meeting, something prominent West European politicians have been advocating. But the proposal, in effect, linked such a meeting to acceptance of the US position in Geneva. This is the ''zero option'': the scrapping of Moscow's medium-range nuclear missile force in return for cancellation of NATO plans to deploy similar new US missiles.
Moscow has rejected this position from the start. The Soviets argue it would deny them a counter to existing, independent rocket forces in Britain and France and would force scrapping of missiles aimed not at Europe, but at Asia.
Recent public remarks by Soviet foreign-affairs specialists make it clear Moscow feels pressure is mounting on the US from European states to amend the ''zero option.'' Soviet - and US - attention is focused particularly on West Germany, where the ''Euromissile'' issue is figuring prominently in campaigning for March 6 national elections.
In broadcast remarks late last month, Nikolai Shishlin, a consultant for the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, cited reports abroad suggesting the West German government had recently come to the ''muted recognition that the zero option . . . cannot be maintained'' as an unamended basis for talks.
Mr. Andropov's rejection of the Reagan summit terms was, foreign diplomats here say, a foregone conclusion. A Soviet journalist commented privately that Mr. Reagan had made the Soviets' job easy by, in effect, linking the summit proposal with an unaltered ''zero option.''
''Sure, this is public diplomacy,'' the Soviet journalist remarked, ''but even by the standards of public diplomacy, this [US] move doesn't seem a very good one. It doesn't make sense.''