Soviet arms offer seen as political prelude to talks. Gorbachev move called prompt -- and predictable

Superpower posturing goes on. In the wake of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's announcement of a temporary freeze on deployment of Soviet medium-range nuclear weapons, diplomatic experts in and out of government caution against public pessimism or optimism.

They make these points:

The Soviet moratorium is essentially a political move, not a realistic negotiating position. Mr. Gorbachev is playing to the galleries in Europe, indicating that the political game over arms control goes on.

Gorbachev has shown that he is fast off the mark and is in control. But he is pursuing the old Soviet foreign policy line, if with more polish.

The Soviet propaganda ploy was predictable. With Gorbachev seeking to gain leverage in the Geneva arms talks and still needing to put new people in high positions at home, it will be a number of months before it becomes clear whether serious negotiation is possible.

Administration officials say they were not surprised by the development, given the beginning of the negotiations in Geneva and the accession to power of a new Soviet leader. The White House quickly dismissed Gorbachev's Easter Day statement, made in an interview with Pravda, as one that would give the Soviets a considerable advantage in intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe.

In an interview Monday on NBC's ``Today,'' national-security adviser Robert McFarlane called the temporary moratorium an ``illusion of a freeze'' and ``disappointing.'' He said that Mr. Gorbachev, in saying that the Soviets would stop putting SS-20s into the European part of the Soviet Union, ignores the fact that they will continue to plant them in Asia. With 1,200 warheads now deployed and an 8-to-1 advantage, Mr. McFarlane added, the US is trying to point out that ``this is just no basis for a balanced outcome.''

Despite frustration over Moscow's public stance, administration officials continue to strike a restrained tone. ``Things are on track,'' says a State Department official.

``No one else expected Gorbachev to do much else in his period except sing to the Gromyko music,'' he says, referring to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. ``The question in Geneva is whether, after both sides deal with the issues, you get Soviet hints emerging with respect to a good negotiation.''

American officials say they believe that Gorbachev is still constrained by the need to fill posts in the Politburo and other party agencies, and that, realistically, it will be two to seven months before it becomes clear whether he wants to work out a deal with the United States.

Talk of a possible summit meeting in Washington or New York in the fall persists. Asked about Gorbachev's statement to Pravda that he was willing to engage in a summit, McFarlane said exchanges with Moscow on areas that might be discussed in a summit have ``quickened a bit.'' But, he added, these have not gone beyond the rhetorical stage.

``We have some ideas for now,'' he stated. ``But we haven't really found much resonance on the other side yet.''

Administration officials say the areas being discussed include regional issues, bilateral problems, and human rights. On Monday a State Department spokesman stated that the Soviet Union could take several steps in the human rights area that would improve relations.

Much still remains to be done before a summit meeting, say US officials, adding that progress may be made when US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko meet in Vienna in May.

Experts in the arms control community also view the proposed American-Soviet moratorium -- an idea that the Soviets have trotted out before -- as a propaganda measure designed to court West Europeans. But some think the US should not be quick to dismiss any halt to a Soviet deployment, even though it may not affect the arms control talks. The US reaction could have been less negative, they suggest.

``This is probably an effective propaganda measure,'' says Gerard Smith, chief negotiator of the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). ``But anything that slows down the SS-20 deployment should be seen as a good thing by the US.''

According to the US count, the Soviet Union has deployed 414 SS-20s so far, of which about two-thirds are aimed at Europe, and the rest at Japan and China. With each missile carrying three warheads, this makes for a total of 1,242 warheads, about one-third of them aimed at West Europe.

The US and its allies are in process of deploying 572 new missiles in Europe by 1988, including 108 Pershing II ballistic missiles with one warhead each, and 464 cruise missiles. To date NATO has deployed 54 Pershing II missiles and 48 cruise missiles.

Although the Soviet moratorium, due to last until November, is seen to be politically motivated, many arms control experts believe that in substantive terms, such a freeze would not be unreasonable. While the Soviets have more medium-range missiles and warheads, the West's arsenal includes US nuclear-capable bombers and submarines based in Europe, as well as the independent British and French nuclear forces.

``In military terms it does not make much difference,'' Mr. Smith says. ``For years the Soviets have had the SS-4s and SS-5s that could destroy Europe. Now they have the SS-20s that could destroy Europe. So Europe is not under greater threat.''

It is widely agreed that the problem is less a military than a psychological and political one. As long as it is perceived that the USSR has an advantage in intermediate-range nuclear weapons, Europeans feel hostage to potential political blackmail. The US and NATO response is aimed at eliminating this concern.

Diplomatic observers say it would be a mistake for the US to accept a moratorium now, because of the political impact in Europe. ``It might not put the US in a strategically inferior position, if you factor in the West's nuclear forces,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, a former US diplomat with the Arms Control Association. ``But it puts us in a politically disadvantageous position, because we spent so much blood trying to get the allies to accept the [Pershing II and cruise missiles].''

In the coming weeks and months, Moscow, with its eye on the allies and peace groups in Europe, is expected to intensify its propaganda campaign against the NATO deployments of medium-range missiles -- hoping, among other things, to persuade the Netherlands not to accept them -- and against President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative for research on space-based nuclear-weapons defense.

``They're waiting for us to come off the notion that we can build defensive systems and back away from the ABM [anti-ballistic missile] treaty,'' says John Newhouse of the Brookings Institution.

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