Superpower polemic eclipses Easter's antinuclear protests

Moscow, Washington, and thousands of antinuclear demonstrators had a lot to say about peace this past Easter weekend. But little of it suggested that the superpowers have come any closer to calling a truce in the war of words over Soviet and American nuclear forces in Europe.

Demonstrators who massed for eye-catching antimissile protests in Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands found a little of the limelight stolen from them by the gaunt, less colorful figure of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

Mr. Gromyko went before the world's press in Moscow Saturday to deliver the Kremlin's formal ''nyet'' to President Reagan's latest offer on reducing nuclear arms in Europe.

It was the first press conference Mr. Gromyko had held in Moscow since June 1979 - when he talked about SALT II - and the Soviets ensured maximum publicity for the occasion. The two-hour press conference was broadcast live nationwide on television and radio and beamed around the world with a simultaneous English-language translation on Radio Moscow.

The heavy publicity and Mr. Gromyko's restrained yet unyielding attack on US policy suggested that the Kremlin has not yet given up on persuading West Europeans to get their governments to reject deployment of US medium-range nuclear missiles later this year.

Senior American officials in Washington reacted with muted optimism to Gromyko's restraint. They refused to see his rejection of the Reagan proposal as a sign it was dead. And they cited Soviet agreement to resume the recessed Geneva Euromissile talks two weeks earlier than planned as a signal that agreement may still be reached.

But Western diplomats in Moscow dampened that optimismn, pointing out that the Soviets would have little to gain at this point by breaking off the Geneva negotiations - even if, as Gromyko suggested, they believe the Americans are not willing to reach agreement.

If the Soviets left the Geneva talks, their standing in the eyes of West European peace movements would immediately suffer. As things are now, the Kremlin's participation in the Geneva talks lends credibility to Gromyko's statement that Soviet foreign policy is ''a policy of peace.'' Nor does the act of negotiating force Moscow to relinquish any of the 350 SS-20 missiles already deployed.

Knowledge that Moscow has the upper hand militarily is perhaps what prompted Gromyko to stick safely to well-worn Kremlin arguments at his press conference.

Reagan had introduced a new factor, Gromyko said, by speaking in his ''interim'' offer of the need to scrap medium-range nuclear weapons from the Asian as well as the European part of the Soviet Union. This alone, he stressed, was enough to make Reagan's offer quite ''unacceptable.''

But Gromyko did not leave it at that. In their tug of war over nuclear missiles, defense spending, trade, and ideology, neither superpower can apparently afford to let the other side score even one small point. Thus Gromyko countered Reagan's demands on Asia with a long harangue about American nuclear bases in Japan, South Korea, and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

There is some sign, however, that both sides may at least remove some of the venom from their quarrel. A week before Gromyko faced the world's press, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov caused a stir by accusing Reagan of lying about one aspect of Soviet policy and charging that the US President tended toward ''impudent distortions'' of Moscow's aims.

Suggestions surfaced in Washington that Reagan had provoked this acrimony with his March 23 speech in Orlando, Fla., when he painted the Soviet Union as an ''evil'' force. Asked about that speech, Gromyko was stung into an eight-minute diatribe. But, as a veteran diplomat, he was more restrained than Andropov appeared to be the week before.

It is hard to say if this caution adds up to a Soviet desire to scale down the rhetoric, or if such an effort would find much sympathy in Washington. Either way, the war of words looks certain to continue as the December deadline for deploying American medium-range missiles in Europe appproaches.

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