Nurturing ASAT-talk prospects

Will the current fencing match between the Kremlin and the White House over space arms control lead to serious negotiations? Don't hold your breath, at least not yet.

There is a definite possibility that both the Soviet leadership and the Reagan administration are motivated by a desire to score public-relations points. The Politburo wants to prove that contrary to Ronald Reagan, the Russian bear is not hibernating and is willing to conduct arms control discussions. It is just that previous US proposals have been totally unacceptable.

Mr. Reagan and his political advisers are well aware that TV footage of US and Soviet delegates shaking hands in Vienna would deliver another blow to the Democrats' efforts to portray the President as an irresponsible confrontationalist. Conversely, rejecting Moscow's invitation to talks could provide Walter Mondale with additional ammunition to question Reagan's arms control record.

Still, it is mildly encouraging that the superpowers indicate an interest in resuming an arms control dialogue. History is filled with examples of negotiations that were initiated for propaganda purposes but generated momentum, and resulted in surprising agreements.

Some degree of skepticism is appropriate and even constructive because only if we are aware of serious difficulties ahead will we be able to handle them.

The first difficulty is that Washington and Moscow are simultaneously seeking something more comprehensive and narrower than the other side. The Reagan administration wants to discuss not only weapons in space but also strategic and intermediate-range nuclear systems.

The Politburo insists that the Vienna talks should be restricted to space. The Russians walked out of negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear weapons and refused to set a new date for resuming negotiations on strategic arms. The Soviet stated reason is the deployment of American Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. The Kremlin probably badly miscalculated, expecting that the walkout would create a crisis in NATO.

On the other hand, as far as weapons in space are concerned, the Soviet leadership is asking for a much more comprehensive agreement than the Reagan administration is prepared to conceive. Konstantin Chernenko and his associates want ''to reach agreement on banning and scrapping a whole class of armaments - strike space systems, including space-based antisatellite and antimissile systems as well as any land-based, air-based, or sea-based systems designed to hit targets in space.''

Because of verification difficulties and because of a temptation to develop space-based antimissile defense, the Reagan administration is not prepared to go much beyond piecemeal agreement covering almost exclusively low-altitude antisatellite weapons.

From the Soviet standpoint they find the US approach one-sided due to the fact that the USSR is much more dependent upon low-altitude satellites than is the US. The Kremlin charges that Washington once again is looking for a way to use arms control to assure US strategic superiority.

Another contentious point is the Soviet-proposed moratorium on testing and deployment of weapons in space during the negotiations. The Soviets have already tested their antisatellite system. The first test of a more sophisticated US system is scheduled for November. Understandably the Reagan administration perceives the Soviet demand as an effort to gain a unilateral advantage. Yet, the USSR is fearful that talks without a moratorium would help the White House secure congressional funding for space wars. If they help Reagan politically, the Soviets want some tangible benefits for their side.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable. If Washington agrees to focus the talks exclusively on space weapons - while making it clear that any agreement will be contingent on the resumption of discussions in Geneva - Moscow may opt to swallow the US approach. If the talks start in November rather than September , the Soviets would be doing less for Reagan politically and may be inclined to accept less in return - let's say a promise that after a first test of an American antisatellite weapon (which would actually predate the negotiations) the United States would accept a short-term moratorium.

Two things are needed for this approach to be given a chance. First, the US Congress has to give Reagan the benefit of the doubt and resist efforts to kill funding for antisatellite tests. Otherwise, the US would be deprived of leverage and the Kremlin would have little incentive to accommodate US concerns.

Nevertheless, leverage alone will accomplish nothing if the Reagan administration again allows the civilian Pentagon officials and their allies to formulate bargaining positions so nonnegotiable that the Soviets perceive them as a provocation. Too often in the past the pragmatists have succeeded in starting arms control talks, but the hard-liners were given enough influence to assure that nothing would come of them.

Only Mr. Reagan's unequivocal commitment can change the outcome this time.

Dimitri K. Simes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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