Anticipating the next Soviet threat

President Reagan's alleged new flexibility on nuclear arms control with the Soviet Union is a sham. Or so at least the Kremlin claims. And without its cooperation, no progress at the talks is in sight.

Instead, chances are that the United States and the Soviet Union will continue on a collision course at least until the 1984 presidential elections. Moreover, there is a growing risk of a major confrontation between the two superpowers, possibly the worst confrontation since the 1948 Berlin blockade. As in 1962, the confrontation may start because of Soviet missiles being stationed on or serviced from Cuba. Unlike in 1962 however, Washington does not enjoy overwhelming strategic predominance.

Other trouble spots, from West Germany - where American Pershing II and cruise missiles are to be deployed - to Lebanon, considerably increase the danger of a direct US-Soviet clash. And mutual suspicions and hostile emotions run much higher today than when John Kennedy boldly challenged Nikita Khrushchev. Finally, the Kremlin and the White House are on shouting rather than speaking terms. Meaningful private communication channels are next to nonexistent. If a crisis suddenly develops, controlling it would be difficult indeed.

Amazingly, neither the Reagan administration nor even its critics in Congress gave much thought to this new threat to US security. But the threat is literally around the corner. What is going to be the Soviet response to the deployment of American missiles in Europe? The administration likes to believe that the Politburo, impressed with manifestations of US determination and NATO cohesion, will come to its senses and become more accommodating at the bargaining table in Geneva.

But that is probably a dream. Even Andropov and his colleagues state that they will respond with a counterdeployment. Are they bluffing? Not likely. First , their warnings are too loud and too specific to leave much room for retreat without losing face. And the last thing the Soviet leadership wants is to appear weak under Reagan's pressure. Second, the military enjoy an unprecedented power in Moscow these days. And they are certain to use it to proceed with a counterdeployment. According to reliable sources, the decisions have already been made as to what kind of Soviet systems are going to be deployed and where.

Soviet statesmen and marshals refuse to be too specific: The motherland's military secrets should not be given away. But it was disclosed that there will be more SS-20 missiles. Also new shorter-range missiles - presumably SS-22s - are going to be deployed in Eastern Europe. And steps will be taken to put the US in an ''analogous position,'' in other words to make the US also vulnerable to a nuclear strike with very little warning.

It is these steps that may provoke a new Cuban missile crisis. There seems to be no way the Soviets can implement their design without violating their 1962 agreement with President Kennedy not to use Cuba as a base for offensive nuclear weapons with America as target. Deploying additional SS-20 missiles in the Far East is not an option. The Chinese and the Japanese would be up in arms. And the Kremlin, faced with the Reagan challenge, is interested in improving relations with Peking. In addition, the limited range of SS-20s will not allow them to threaten much of the American territory beyond Alaska and the Northwest.

On the other hand, deploying missiles on or around Cuba will make the whole Eastern shore vulnerable. Putting SS-20s on the island itself would probably be too daring for the conservative and cautious Soviet rulers. However, installing sea-launched cruise missiles on submarines is a likely alternative.

Moscow has a few aging Yankee-class subs available for this mission. But neither their numbers nor range would be sufficient to make a sizable presence close to US shores without using Cuba as a base. This would clearly violate the 1962 US-Soviet agreement. But Soviet spokesmen are already dropping hints that they are prepared to take their chances. From Moscow's standpoint, the 1962 agreements included Kennedy's secret pledge to remove American intermediate-range missiles from Europe. And now the Reagan administration is planning to deploy much more capable systems.

What is the US going to do when it is discovered that the Pershing and cruise missiles have exposed the whole Eastern shore to a new and unprecedented danger instead of making the Soviets more flexible in Geneva? Somber voices will probably argue that Soviet military submarines with cruise missiles will not immediately add much to an already existing Soviet arsenal. And there will be appeals for negotiation before the Kremlin deploys its new weapons in any considerable numbers.

But the predominant reaction will probably be one of extreme anger directed primarily against the Russians, but also to some extent against the Reagan administration for failing to anticipate the threat. The President, denied an opportunity to run as a champion of peace, will be strongly tempted to demonstrate his machismo.

But will he have the courage to show his strength? Probably not, say Andropov's advisers. And it is entirely constructive to impress upon Americans that ''The threat is being created for them as well.'' This was stated on Soviet TV the other night by Vitaliy Kobysh of the Communist Party Central Committee.

Maybe there is no other choice but to proceed with the scheduled US deployment.

And maybe it would take a massive show of American strength to discipline the Soviet empire. Reasonable and informed people can disagree about that. What educated observers should not do, however, is to celebrate Reagan's new arms control maneuvers at a time when the Soviets see only deception covering hostile intentions and are in fact busy preparing a response in kind.

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