Andropov arms control offer: more politics than substance

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's latest offer on European arms control seems aimed at shifting the onus for reaching an early accord back onto the Western side.

Certainly, it comes at a time when the negotiating pressure had fallen uncomfortably on the Kremlin.

And Mr. Andropov surely knows as well as anyone that his latest amendment of the Soviet position is unlikely to trigger sudden, major concessions from United States negotiators. Nor are the key sideline parties - Britain and France - magically going to reverse their refusal to have their independent nuclear forces counted in NATO's total at the Geneva talks.

If there is, indeed, to be movement of that order - by either East or West - it is likely to come only further down the road.

Hence, Mr. Andropov's May 3 offer to balance European nuclear warheads - not just the missiles or submarines or planes that carry them - seems geared to influence the political atmosphere, rather than substance, of the Geneva negotiations.

For Moscow, that atmosphere has worsened sharply.

Some 18 months or so ago, Western pundits spoke of growing ''pressure'' on the United States to make Euromissile concessions to the men in the Kremlin.

The popular antinuclear movement, already full blown in Western Europe, had mushroomed in the US as well. In West Germany the then ruling Social Democratic Party - a key to preserving a semblance of NATO decorum and unity on announced plans for new US missiles in Europe - was, itself, split on the issue. This was true even though Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had been a catalyst in adoption of the NATO missile plan in 1979 as an avowed balance to a growing force of powerful Soviet SS-20 rockets trained on Western Europe.

The Kremlin, for its part, was seen by Western experts as enormously successful in selling its own Euromissile stand - i.e., at playing ''peacemaker'' to what was painted as Ronald Reagan's bumbling cowboy warmonger.

By late 1982, Moscow still seemed in the more comfortable negotiating position.

Germany's Helmut Schmidt, it is true, had been replaced by the more conservative Helmut Kohl. But there was also a Soviet transition: from the rule of Leonid Brezhnev to that of Mr. Andropov.

The new Kremlin chief wasted no time in conveying a revived sense of energy - and in unveiling Moscow's first meaty counteroffer to the opening US missile stand. Still, by the time he aired the latest refinement of this counterproposal May 3, the negotiating pressure had seemingly shifted onto Moscow, for a number of reasons:

* Timing. The planned start of deployment of new US Euromissiles is late 1983 . If the Soviets want to negotiate that deployment away, they can't help eyeing the calendar.

* Western politics. German Chancellor Kohl, in an early national election, won endorsement in March. Euromissiles may not have been the key issue, but he did win despite his firm backing for the NATO stand on US missiles. And although Western antinuclear feeling remains strong, even a prominent Soviet analyst acknowledges privately that it now seems unlikely to derail deployment of the first US rockets.

* NATO negotiating moves. Mr. Reagan, while ignoring key Soviet objections to his initial stand, did announce a genuine shift in reply to Mr. Andropov's initial proposal. The Reagan ''interim'' plan, highly significant in the West's political context, would trim the number of new US rockets deployed in Europe.

* Public relations. In an effort to counter Soviet bids to present the West as inflexible and warlike, Western officials seem to have adopted a more subtle public approach to the talks. Thus, initial Western comment on Mr. Andropov's May 3 shift implied cautious welcome - even though NATO's private view on the substance of his move was probably much bleaker.

The shift to counting warheads is, in all fairness, of substantive importance. A Western objection to Moscow's Euromissile approach has been that it does not take sufficient account of the fact each Soviet SS-20 packs three warheads.

This Soviet change on warheads implies, depending on which conflicting Soviet data are used, a willingness to cut out 25 to 65 more SS-20s than earlier offers would have done. But it still leaves other key negotiating gaps unbridged.

First, Moscow wants to count British and French rockets, saying they are clearly aimed eastward. NATO holds that is an issue for later talks, since the missiles are independently controlled, not meant to defend NATO Europe as a whole.

Second, Mr. Andropov has still not met Western insistence that he scrap, not just reposition, the highly mobile SS-20s that would be removed under any negotiated limits.

What the Soviet leader has done, or tried to do, is rekindle the Euromissile issue in the West - both for Western peace movements and for Western governments.

The switch to warhead counts might also be intended to present Western Europe with the kind of time-related negotiating pressure that has recently been falling largely on Moscow.

Although the current warhead total of British and French forces would imply, under Mr. Andropov's latest proposal, a further SS-20 reduction, Paris and London both are planning to add warheads to their missiles as part of a force modernization. Under Moscow's proposal, the Soviets would then presumably be allowed a large increase in SS-20s.

''We'll have to see how this issue is handled publicly here,'' a Western diplomat says. ''It's delicate. Moscow doesn't want to appear threatening. . . . Yet it clearly does want to focus fresh attention on British and French forces, and reopen the question in the West of why, exactly, we don't include them in the Geneva talks.''

Moscow's immediate strategy may be to wait - and gauge Western popular and official response to Mr. Andropov's May 3 move. The assumption among foreign diplomats is that any major give by either Washington or Moscow, if it comes, will come only after midsummer, with the approach of the planned siting of the new US arms.

Soviet officials aren't saying precisely what options they may have in mind. But one move hinted at privately to some diplomats would be a willingness to scrap at least some SS-20s, rather than just move them.

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