A serious challenge -- and an unprecedented new opportunity. That's what seems to be emerging as the Soviet Union directly links a ban on space weaponry with a reduction of nuclear arsenals on earth.
Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, during a rare televised interview here in Moscow, put the matter in stark terms.
``There is no choice here. No middle road. Either outer space must be dealt with in earnest and an arms race in space prevented, outer space kept non-militarized, or -- an arms race.''
Specifically, Mr. Gromyko held that a ban on space weapons could lead to reductions in intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles. But, he warned, there is no hope of getting one without the other -- ground- and space-based weapons systems are, from now on, to be dealt with only ``as a complex.''
At first glance, that would seem to add even more complications to an already complex set of disagreements between the superpowers.
But that is not necessarily the case.
Even Gromyko himself said, ``We must not frighten ourselves with the complexity of the structure [of negotiations]. Where there's a will, there's a way.''
And in the United States, Secretary of State George Shultz conceded that there was a linkage between reaching accord on offensive weapons (on earth) and defensive systems (in space.)
In Moscow, some Western diplomats see an extraordinary opportunity arising from such a ``linkage.'' One high American diplomatic source -- speaking before Gromyko's appearance -- predicts that the interrelation-ship of these issues -- weapons on earth and in space, weapons for offensive and defensive use -- might lead to a high-level ``philosophical'' discussion between the superpowers on the nature of security in a nuclear age.
``A better understanding of what motivates each side and what each side is talking about when it talks about stability might ultimately be more stabilizing than an agreement which doesn't really reduce nuclear arms,'' he said.
In any case, the United States, for its part, has the opportunity to press the Soviets for reductions in their huge arsenal of large intercontinental ballistic missiles, which some American experts see as unduly threatening to US security.
The Soviets, for their part, have the opportunity to press the US on space weaponry, which they see as threatening to set off a destablizing arms race in space.
In a sense, the dialogue may have already begun. In his television interview program, stretching nearly two hours, Gromyko laid out this country's case against the planned Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) favored by the Reagan administration.
Gromyko said the argument in favor of placing a defensive shield in space -- one that could shoot down missiles as they are launched -- amounts to ``a rather astute and insidious ruse.''
Assuming such a shield could be built, he said, it could protect the US -- while allowing America to launch a devastating strike against the Soviet Union.
This country, he said, doesn't think much of US assurances that this would never happen.
``It turns out, then, that the Soviet Union must rely . . . on the conscience of Washington,'' he said.
``We have no conviction that Washington has a very big stock of that commodity,'' he said.
Moreover, he asked, what if it was the Soviet Union that was building such a space shield? Would the US, he asked, be content with its assurances that the only purpose behind the project was furthering peace?
``Could [it] not be used for pressure? For blackmail?''
Because of such considerations, he said, it would be a ``mistake, a gross mistake'' to assume that the Soviet Union will allow itself to be placed in a ``subordinate position'' by US advances in space technology.
``We have enormous resources,'' he warned, ``sufficient to ensure our status.''
Indeed, some Western diplomats claim the Soviets are already employing some of those resources in their own space-weapons research program.
The American Embassy official says that the US will insist on radical reductions in Soviet nuclear missiles in order to obviate the need for a space defense system.
Only a radically altered nuclear balance on earth, he said, would make a space defense system unnecessary.
Gromyko, during his television appearance, held out the possibility of deep reductions -- if the US entered into a genuine agreement banning space weapons.
In the runup to new negotiations, then, both sides are staking out their sides. It is a process, the American official concedes, that ``won't be easy.''