His nation's image damaged by the recent tragedy at Chernobyl, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is attempting to salvage a public relations victory. Paradoxically, Mr. Gorbachev appears to be trying to capitalize on the antinuclear emotions unleashed by the Chernobyl accident, some analysts say. He is attempting to focus these emotions on nuclear weapons instead of nuclear power plants through a new proposal limiting medium-range missiles, and by extending the Soviets' self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing.
So far the reaction from Washington has been cool.
Moreover, neither the Chernobyl disaster nor this latest exercise in public diplomacy seems likely to enhance the prospects for an early resumption of superpower summitry.
``I don't think the catastrophy at Chernobyl has made a difference,'' says Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of the dim outlook for a summer summit. ``In a way, [the Soviets are] less likely to succumb to an early meeting simply because they see it as a show of weakness.''
Citing the ``sinister force'' that triggered the meltdown at the Chernobyl plant that, by Soviet count, left nine people dead and nearly 300 injured, Gorbachev Tuesday extended a freeze on new Soviet arms testing. The freeze was first imposed on Aug. 6, the anniversary of the world's first atomic bomb detonated over Japan, and was extended by the Soviets on Jan. 15.
Meanwhile, Soviets negotiators at the US-Soviet ``umbrella'' arms talks in Geneva yesterday unexpectedly proposed a draft treaty on limiting medium-range nuclear weapons.
Analysts agree that the new Soviet arms control offers have been necessary to deflect international criticism of Gorbachev's handling of the Chernobyl incident. Unlike President Reagan, who immediately delivered a television address to the nation and appointed an investigatory commission after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January, Gorbachev's approach to Chernobyl has been characterized by secrecy.
``After Chernobyl, Gorbachev had to come up with some way to make a positive move in the nuclear realm,'' says research analyst Michele Flournoy of the Center for Defense Information, which has called on the US to adopt a test ban. But extending the Soviets' unilateral test ban carries potentially high political and military costs for Gorbachev, some analysts suggest. Gorbachev has been under increasing pressure from the Soviet military to abandon the freeze. The Soviets conducted only seven nuclear tests in 1985 -- barely half the Soviet average in recent years -- and none so far this year. Meanwhile, the US has conducted 10 nuclear tests since the Soviets announced their moratorium in August.
``Even without the extension, the freeze was becoming militarily significant,'' says Ms. Flournoy. ``Extending another six months will really cut into military development.''
Just why Gorbachev has taken this risk remains unclear. Some analysts speculate that by extending the test ban now, the Soviet leader may be seeking to address the nuclear jitters in Europe unleased by the Chernobyl accident. If this latest Soviet move should prove successful, Gorbachev might recoup his lost fortunes with the European peace movement. Revitalizing the peace movement could be especially advantageous to the Soviets at this time, as West Germany will hold national elections next February.
If this is Gorbachev's objective, it is a long shot, experts agree.
``The combination of the specific proposal to eliminate medium-range missiles and to extend the testing moratorium may help Gorbachev on the public opinion level in Europe,'' says James Rubin, a senior research analyst at the Arms Control Association. ``But it will probably take a lot more than that to overcome the damage done by Chernobyl.''
While acknowledging that the Soviet test ban is mainly a public relations move, several arms control advocates in Congress have nevertheless urged the administration to use the occasion to join the test ban.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Larry Speakes welcomed a call by Gorbachev for greater international cooperation in dealing with nuclear emergencies. But the White House rejected the test-ban proposal, reaffirming a long-held administration position that testing is necessary to ensure the reliability of the US nuclear arsenal.
Mr. Speakes also said yesterday the US would study the new intermediate-range nuclear forces proposal, but he said it was merely a ``formal codification'' of earlier plans already dismissed by Reagan officials. In particular, the US has objected to Soviet offers excluding medium-range Soviet missiles based in Asia.