Soviets and US -- edging closer to an agreement at Vienna

THE NATO-Warsaw Pact negotiations in Vienna on mutual and balanced force reductions resume tomorrow with a new lease on life. General Secretary Gorbachev seems to think so too. His January 15 arms control statement expressed optimism that an agreement in Vienna was emerging.

In December, the NATO countries participating in the talks moved with a new proposal to break the nine-year deadlock over the number of Warsaw Pact troops in Central Europe. NATO has been estimating Warsaw Pact ground forces personnel at about 180,000 more than shown in Warsaw Pact figures for the same forces.

This impasse has prevented movement toward reducing, however modestly at the start, this densest segment of the NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation.

Nearly three years ago, the Warsaw Pact announced its agreement in principle to mutual on-site inspections to check the forces of the opposing alliance, potentially a move of great importance for the Vienna talks and for East-West relations in general if inspections were ever carried out. In December, after long consideration, NATO countries made the right move. They decided to put to a real test Warsaw Pact willingness to carry out inspections and to reduce forces in Central Europe. Up to now, NATO participants have been unwilling to reduce any NATO military personnel until after agreement has been reached on the starting figures for both sides. NATO has argued that agreement on the starting level of forces is needed to provide an agreed base line for possible questions about compliance after reductions have taken place.

Since 1976, Warsaw Pact representatives have produced two batches of figures on their forces, both disputed by NATO. They state that divulging further figures -- like the peacetime manning levels of the Soviet divisions deployed forward in East Germany -- would, in a situation where they claim that Western interest in proceeding to actual reductions has not been adequately demonstrated, merely reveal sensitive intelligence information on the level of readiness of their forces. The difficulty in counting forces has rested mainly on the belief of the USSR and other Warsaw Pact governments that their secretiveness over troop dispositions confers military advantage over open Western societies. But it may also be that Soviet forces in East Germany are manned at a peacetime level below the high degree of readiness with which they have been credited by Western intelligence. If this is so, it would be to the mutual benefit that this important fact become public in the West.

An acceptable way around the entire data impasse has been evident ever since the pact responded with its agreement in principle to post-reduction inspections. The solution is for NATO to suspend the requirement that pre-reduction agreement on data for all Warsaw Pact forces be reached at the negotiation table -- and to seek instead to resolve the data issue on the ground through sampling inspections of arbitrarily selected Warsaw Pact units.

Naturally, Warsaw Pact participants would have the same inspection rights for NATO forces. After pulling back from a similar approach in the spring of 1984, the administration has commendably agreed to a NATO move on these lines at the urging of European allies, especially West Germany and the United Kingdom. On Dec. 5, NATO negotiators in Vienna proposed a small initial US-Soviet reduction (5,000 US, 11,500 Soviet personnel), to be followed by inspections to establish the residual force level.

Now, after years of sterile debate over the data issue, Western participants have posed a valid test of Warsaw Pact -- especially Soviet -- willingness to reduce their armed forces in Central Europe. Western inspection requirements appear excessive in number and duration for the task of developing direct evidence on the strengths of some specific Soviet units. There should be room for discussion of these numbers. As a result of the new Western proposals, the Soviet leadership is confronted in Vienna with a need to choose between some sacrifice of traditional Soviet military secrecy through accepting a legitimate means of resolving the data dispute and the agreed force reductions Soviet leaders say they want. Many other negotiating points have been resolved during the years of the data dispute. Rapid progress toward a first agreement in Vienna is possible once the data hurdle has been cleared.

The latest Western proposal has brought an initial agreement in Vienna perceptibly closer, close enough to be on the agenda of the next Reagan-Gorbachev summit in June or July. Perhaps, in this new situation, the Soviet Union will show the color of its money in Vienna -- and make a decisive move in response.

Jonathan Dean, arms control adviser of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a former ambassador and served with the US delegation to the NATO-Warsaw Pact force reduction talks from 1973 through 1981 as deputy head and head of the delegation.

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