The Soviet Union's first nuclear test in 19 months is as much a political gesture as it is a military one. Speaking to journalists soon after yesterday's test, held in Soviet Central Asia, Maj. Gen. Gely Batnenin of the Soviet Defense Ministry emphasized the military imperatives of resuming tests.
General Batnenin denied that Moscow's nuclear moratorium had weakened his country's military strength in relation to the United States. But, he admitted, it had come close to upsetting military parity between the two superpowers.
Future explosions, among other tasks, will test the resistance of Soviet nuclear devices to weapons being developed under President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, Batnenin said.
Later in the day, a well-placed Soviet source described the latest test as primarily a ``political explosion.'' Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev needed to demonstrate his strength, the source said. ``But the demonstration of strength was directed mostly at a domestic audience.''
The Soviet moratorium was leading to concern among both civilians and the military, the source added. Gorbachev's demonstration of strength comes at a time when he has been stressing forcefully that he will continue to push ahead with his economic and political reforms despite considerable resistance to them.
The same source added that Washington would probably be quite pleased with the resumption of tests, which remove a ``slight'' embarrassment for the US.
Batnenin was at pains to emphasize that Moscow was not withdrawing any of its disarmament proposals. The Soviet Union was ready to resume discussions on arms control ``in any place and in any form,'' he said.
The Soviets intended to carry out the ``minimum necessary number of tests'' to fulfill their economic and military objectives. Future tests would be influenced by US actions in this field, Batnenin said. He was sparing in his details of Moscow's nuclear test plans. Soviet scientists have recently said, however, that continued US work on the Strategic Defense Initiative would lead them to develop new weapons of their own in order to maintain strategic stability.
Despite the resumption of tests, Moscow does not seem to have totally abandoned hope of an arms deal with the US. The dismantling of several radar stations at the nuclear test site in the republic of Kazakhstan, reported recently by US officials, may be one signal from Moscow of its continued interest in talks.
The US had previously claimed that the radars were part of a move to break out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Soviet sources, meanwhile, say that it is ``quite possible'' that Secretary of State George Shultz could be invited here to discuss arms control.
At the same time, Moscow seems to be having trouble assessing the effect of the Iran-contra affair on arms control. Speaking along with Batnenin yesterday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov commented on what he called the ``chaos, confusion, and endless resignations'' in Washington. Because of this, ``it is not quite clear to us who is behind the wheel, who is making US policy,'' he said. Contradictory signals on such subjects as the ABM Treaty ``make it hard to for us know what we can expect from America.''