Will the Soviets reciprocate? In the wake of President Reagan's decision to abide by the SALT II treaty, the question remains whether the Soviet Union will feel under any more pressure to offer a realistic arms control proposal and break the ice at the Geneva arms talks.
Some foreign policy observers say the President has expended so much political capital to take a moderate stand on SALT II that the next move is up to Moscow. If the Soviets do not act, they say, there appears to be little hope for progress in arms control.
``The Russians will have to make the next move,'' says Marshall Shulman, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. ``I don't think the administration can do anything publicly. The Soviets must understand that.''
Experts caution that, while the President's decision pressures Moscow to offer a proposal by fall, Moscow will not view his move as a meaningful concession.
``The Soviets are not preoccupied with the fighting in the administration but their own problems,'' says Dimitri K. Simes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``They will respond in terms of their own military requirements and their long-term experience with the United States.''
If the President had decided to undercut SALT II, says Mr. Simes, that would have been a disaster. But, by opting for compliance, he has assured cohesion in the Western alliance, made it possible to get congressional support for defense programs, and kept the door open to a summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. This puts him in a better bargaining position at Geneva.
``It was a courageous gesture but not because it opens a new door or because you can expect the Russians to reciprocate,'' he says.
Arms control advocates in the administration voice frustration over Soviet insistence on carrying on the arms debate in public. Virtually every top Soviet leader has spoken out publicly against the President's``star wars'' program. But Moscow's opening bid at Geneva is an old proposal that does not reflect that concern.
``Why don't they give us something to work with?'' says an administration official. Without pressure from the outside, he says, the moderates will not have leverage to fight the bureaucratic battle.
Many arms control experts share that view, even though they are critical of the President's all-out approach on the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a plan aimed at a space-based defense shield against missile attack. ``I can't see the United States coming in with a proposal that does anything to SDI,'' says Albert Carnesale, a Harvard University expert. ``There will have to be a Soviet proposal and a realistic one -- not just `stop SDI.' ''
Such a proposal, suggests Dr. Carnesale, could offer deep cuts in offensive nuclear weapons in return for a reaffirmation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, extension of the period for notification of intent to abrogate it, and a ban on testing antisatellite systems.
``They have to talk about serious reductions in offensive weapons to tempt us,'' says Dr. Carnesale, ``so the President could say, `We don't have to pursue SDI at such a fast rate.' ''
Mr. Reagan has received both praise and criticism for his announcement on SALT II. Some conservatives in Congress like Sen. Steven D. Symms (R) of Idaho who favor scrapping of the treaty call the President's move appeasement. But arms control advocates, including many Republicans, are ecstatic that the President has prolonged the life of the treaty and provided more time for arms control negotiations to pick up steam.
Mr. Reagan has in effect bought some time and postponed a decision on whether to keep or end the treaty. The whole issue of US compliance will roll around again in 1986 when the eighth Trident submarine is put out to sea and the US continues converting B-52 bombers to carry cruise missiles.
``They've just kicked the problem downstream to the next flashpoint,'' says Michael Krepon, an authority on treaty compliance who says those proposing a breach of SALT provisions will have a stronger position next time.
Along with a more forthcoming Soviet posture in Geneva, the President has called for Soviet correction of alleged treaty violations. Moscow could give the arms talks a nudge by responding positively.
Mr. Krepon says Moscow should address the problem of encryption -- the coding of data during missile flight tests to hinder treaty verification. ``If they did one thing to indicate good faith, the easiest step would be to dramatically roll back encryption,'' Krepon says. ``It would be wise for them to do that.''