Back to that 'walk in the woods'?

There are some encouraging straws in the wind that it may be possible for the United States and the Soviet Union to reach an agreement on intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. NATO deployment of Euromissiles in West Germany is scheduled to begin in December. The Russians, according to hints from Bonn, may be prepared for a new effort in Geneva to break the deadlock. Yuri Andropov is said to have presented Chancellor Helmut Kohl with some new ideas during the latter's visit to Moscow. And West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said in Washington that Moscow would no longer block the talks by insisting on taking into account independent British and French nuclear forces.

Hopes should not be raised prematurely. But it may be significant that a proposal worked out by Soviet and US negotiators a year ago is again surfacing in the public discussion. Moscow and Washington rejected that proposal but, if they had to do it all over again, they might have been less peremptory and shortsighted.

The facts are these:

The Soviets in the summer of 1982 had about 250 of the massive triple-warhead SS-20s positioned west of the Urals and targeted on Western Europe; NATO, for its part, was readying to deploy 108 Pershing II missiles and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles. Negotiations had gotten nowhere but, before the talks recessed, US negotiator Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart Yuli Kvitsinsky took a ''walk in the woods'' where the two worked out an informal agreement. Its basic elements were that each side would be limited to 75 launchers. The Soviet Union would therefore have to destroy l68 of its modern SS-20 launchers - in addition to 380 older SS-4s and SS-5s. The remainder of its SS-20 force, deployed in the eastern part of the USSR, would remain at the then-current level, i.e. 90 launchers. As for the 75 launchers permitted on the American side, they would not include the Pershing IIs. These ballistic missiles are regarded by Moscow as the most threatening because they can reach hard Soviet targets within minutes.

In hindsight, this seems a reasonable framework for negotiation. One, because it is negotiable; other US proposals have not been. Two, because it establishes a rough parity between the sides (actually giving the US an advantage in warheads in exchange for banning the Pershings). Three, because it freezes the level of SS-20s in Soviet Asia.

For all the many reports on why and how the Nitze-Kvitsinsky proposal came to be turned down, it remains unclear whether the Kremlin or the White House was most responsible. The proposal was not, to be sure, an official one, making it easier for both sides to reject it. But the point is that the plan was never really explored in the two capitals at the highest levels, despite its obvious merits.

Since that woodland encounter the Russians have hardened their position. It is speculated that Moscow may prefer to await the possibility of popular demonstrations against the new NATO missiles, so that deployment is not achieved without political cost. It may also wish to see how presidential winds are blowing in the US before handing Ronald Reagan an arms control agreement. But the men in the Kremlin must also calculate that the longer they delay negotiation, once the deployments begin, the harder it may be to reach agreement - especially if they have overestimated West European public resistance to the deployments.

Washington, in turn, should not misread Soviet resolve to counter the new NATO missiles. The Russians do not like to be seen being backed into a corner (even if they put themselves there). They would feel constrained to do something. This may or may not worry US strategic planners, but it would hardly help the cause of restraining the arms race. Why not grapple with the issue now - and rekindle the spirit of compromise that produced that fruitful ''walk in the woods''?

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