Testing time for Soviet, US leadership. Washington raises questions about arms control, summit

An air of uncertainty surrounds superpower summitry and the arms control negotiations. Little progress was made in the just-ended round of arms talks in Geneva, and President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are fencing over the date of the next summit meeting.

Administration officials attribute the present mood in large part to the Soviet party congress, which has preoccupied Mr. Gorbachev. Now that the conclave is over, and the new Soviet party leadership is firmly in place, it is hoped that the period of public posturing will also be over, and both sides will get down to serious negotiation.

``Gorbachev has made clear he wants a dialogue with the US and a serious relationship,'' says one United States official. ``Neither side will want to take the responsibility of torpedoing a summit.''

But diplomatic and arms experts now see the arms negotiations in trouble, in all three categories. No progress is being made in the area of strategic nuclear weapons or space-based defensive systems. In the third category -- intermediate-range missiles -- the European allies have reacted negatively to the latest Soviet proposal, which calls for a freeze on British and French nuclear forces. The United States rejects that condition, on grounds that the US cannot negotiate limits on these independent forces.

Under its proposal, Washington is calling for the elimination within three years of all the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles in Western Europe and the Soviet SS-20s now deployed in Europe and Asia. This is, in effect, a return to the administration's ``zero option'' of more than four years ago.

According to one source, the US is prepared to accept only the first-year stage of reductions, which would leave some 140 launchers on each side. This would meet the European concerns of being left without the US-made Pershing 2s and cruise missiles, particularly after such a long struggle to get them deployed.

The administration believes the area of reductions in medium- or intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) still holds out the best possibility for an interim arms control accord. The fact that the Soviets have decoupled INF from a demand that the US end research on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars,'' is regarded as encouraging.

But some arms experts are skeptical, both because of the British-French issue and because the American offer is a retread of old proposals. There is in fact some puzzlement about why Gorbachev chose to give the US an opening in the area of medium-range missiles while setting aside the larger question of strategic weapons. Some specialists suggest that he may have sought to smoke out the Europeans, who have long pressed for negotiations over medium-range missiles but who, when the opportunity arose, appeared to run scared. ``The Soviets called their bluff and they blinked,'' comments an official of the Arms Control Association. ``No one now fears that arms control will break out in Europe.''

John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, suggests that the Soviet move in Europe makes sense only if it was designed to get the issue out of the way and remove the Europeans from the arms ballgame. Mr. Steinbruner says he thinks Gorbachev may have blundered by getting the Reagan administration off the hook on the central issue of strategic arms and the SDI.

``It may be a misjudgment of his, since it is likelier that Mr. Reagan could be budged on SDI than the Europeans on the British and French forces,'' he says. ``It will force the Europeans to show they have been playing games all along, and they will be angry with being exposed.''

Steinbruner says that SDI and strategic or intercontinental arms are still the fundamental issue. But, he says, it is up to Gorbachev to make a proposal that Reagan would find difficult to turn down. ``The initiative is with them. It's up to the Soviets to present the compromise.''

If a second summit meeting is scheduled for this year, it is hard to predict what agreements might be reached. Experts speculate that there could be progress on ratification of the 1974 threshold test-ban treaty or on secondary issues arising from the Stockholm security conference and the Vienna talks on conventional-force reductions.

The Reagan administration is now stressing that there is no ``linkage'' between a summit and progress on arms control. But diplomatic experts say that Gorbachev is not likely to go to another summit meeting without the prospects of tangible results in the arms field.

``Gorbachev is right -- there's no point in having another summit meeting unless we have something to sink our teeth into,'' says Malcolm Toon, a former US ambassador to Moscow. ``It's silly to have another get-acquainted meeting.''

Although Gorbachev's harsh words at the party congress about the US tend to be discounted as aimed largely at a domestic audience, diplomatic experts caution against not taking him at his word. ``Gorbachev is making clear that he's not going to sit still or be diddled, endlessly exchanging platitudes,'' says Mark Garrison, director of Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development and also a former US diplomat. ``He wouldn't want to come here if nothing is accomplished.''

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