The Kremlin was not surprised by President Reagan's announcement that the United States might breach SALT II later this year. The second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was signed at Vienna in June 1979, but was never ratified by the US. Nevertheless, both sides claim to have abided by the terms of the agreement, although each has accused the other of violating it.
The Reagan administration says that while it will observe the treaty for the time being, it cannot do so indefinitely in the face of Soviet violations.
Soviet officials have, for months, been privately predicting just such a development. SALT II and President Reagan's military buildup, the officials say, are essentially at cross purposes. In the Soviet view, the President's choice was between a treaty he dislikes (he termed it ``fatally flawed' in 1980) and weapons he had been instrumental in commissioning. And Soviet officials said they had little doubt about which he would choose.
Notably, US charges of Soviet noncompliance are not factored into the equation here. Soviet officials claim that Moscow has been scrupulously adhering to the treaty, and at a greater cost than Washington has had to pay.
Moscow's initial reaction to the US announcement -- in the form of a report on Tass, the Soviet news agency -- was somewhat low key. Tass, citing ``analysts,'' said the decision to continue observing the treaty for the time being was made under ``powerful pressure'' from the US Congress, the US public, and from the US's Western allies.
Tass said that polls had shown that more than 75 percent of Americans favored ``stronger control over disarmament.'' It further noted that 52 US Senators and 221 members of the US House had ``demanded'' that the White House adhere to the treaty, and that the US State Department had also advised against undermining the accord.
``The fact that all US allies spoke out for the observation'' of the treaty, said Tass, proved the ``broad scale'' of support for the treaty, and indicated widespread demands that ``the sliding of the world to a nuclear disaster be stopped.''
By Soviet standards, the Tass report was restrained. It noted that the US ``formally remains within the framework'' of the treaty. Only in the last paragraph did it report that the White House ``unequivocally intimated . . . that it does not consider itself bound by the provisions'' of the agreement.
According to official Soviet figures, this country has dismantled 93 ``strategic offensive arms'' in order to keep within the limits imposed by the treaty, while the US has dismantled only 16.
Tass denigrated the significance of the latest US trade-off, saying it involved dismantling of ``two outdated Poseidon nuclear submarines'' in exchange for ``the new Nevada submarine . . . equipped with 24 launchers for Trident-1 ICBMS [intercontinental ballistic missiles].'' The issue will undoubtedly resurface in December, when more US B-52 bombers will be fitted with cruise missiles, a move that will also exceed treaty limits.
Some Western diplomats here predict that Soviet demands for continued compliance will emerge as a major propaganda theme in coming months. The demands will undoubtedly be a factor, they predict, in Soviet calculations over when -- and whether -- to hold a summit meeting later this year.