US, Soviets return to negotiating table, tackling troop reductions

The European troop reduction talks reopening today may prove less sleepy than they were in the previous 10 1/2 years. The flurry of interest in the Vienna talks stems from the contrasting absence of any nuclear arms control negotiations.

Moscow broke off both Euromissile and strategic arms reduction talks late last year as new NATO deployments of Euromissiles started. And the first suggestion of some easing of the Soviet hard line came in mid-January as the Soviets agreed to resume European troop - but not nuclear arms - reduction talks.

Vigorous efforts by both East and West to maintain a public image of peace-seeking may be expected at the mutual and balanced force reduction (MBFR) talks, as they are known. Western diplomats do not anticipate any new Western initiative in the first week or two, however, as the West is still wrestling out its joint position.

The MBFR talks started in the heyday of detente in the early 1970s. The super-powers had just put a cap on the nuclear arms race with the first strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT I). They wanted to extend the restraint downward to cover armies and conventional weapons in the most heavily armed region on earth, the East-West fault in Europe.

The urgency was not of the same order. By contrast to the nuclear arms race - which many people believed significantly heightened East-West tension - the European ground forces' standoff was essentially viewed as a result of East-West hostility, not a cause of it. Confrontation in Europe was regarded as politically rather than militarily driven.

The political antagonism had just been tempered by the four-power Berlin agreement, however, and it seemed a good time to try to get European armies under control, too. Once SALT II was signed, it was thought, MBFR would take off.

It never did. Detente soured, SALT II was never ratified by the US, bogged down in all the complexities and asymmetries in the central front under discussion: the two Germanys, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. A target was eventually set of a ceiling of 700,000 land forces and 200,000 air personnel for each side. But the route to this goal was far from agreed.

The core argument quickly became the question of existing data as a base from which to reduce forces. Western intelligence put Warsaw Pact forces in Central Europe as 960,000 land and 200,000 air personnel, or some 20 percent above NATO strengths. But the Warsaw Pact insisted its proper figure was only 800,000 ground forces. There the impasse rested from 1976 through 1983.

Some movement came last summer, when the Soviets modified their position on the related issue of verification. It said the Warsaw Pact would allow on-site inspection of reductions, with permanent monitors at agreed entry and exit points.

With that the Warsaw Pact hoped reductions could begin without prior agreement on data. An initial reduction of 13,000 American and 20,000 Soviet troops would be appropriate, it suggested, as against the Western proposal of an initial 13,000 US and 30,000 Soviet troops.

The instinct of the West German government - which wanted as many Western peace initiatives as possible to allay public fears about the forthcoming NATO Euromissiles deployment - was to meet the Soviet proposal with a compromise.

Under the West German concept the first modest reductions could be carried out while the issue of data was held in abeyance. This could enable the Soviet Union to withdraw its excess troops gracefully, while not being publicly forced to eat its words on the number of existing Warsaw Pact troops.

Once the first withdrawals had established some goodwill, the negotiators could start afresh on the data, and no further reductions need follow without a prior understanding on data and non-veto, on-site inspections on challenge.

Within NATO's inner trio of MBFR policymakers both the Americans and the British were skeptical of the West German idea. They detected no inclination by the Soviet Union to equalize Eastern troops down to Western levels.

At this point Bonn has revived its proposal within the Western alliance. Washington and London are still skeptical but do want to explore Soviet seriousness about inspections. Allied diplomats suggest that a reshaping of the longstanding Western on initial reductions may emerge in the next several weeks.

For its part the Warsaw Pact will do little more at the Vienna talks, prior hints suggest, than revive an old proposal for limits on military budgets. The West's response to this has always been: Let's agree on the definition of military budgets first (since so much of Warsaw Pact defense spending is hidden). Then we can talk about limits.

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