`Harsh facts' temper NATO response to Moscow talks. Soviet conventional, chemical arms lead worries allies

The allies yesterday welcomed progress made at talks between United States Secretary of State George Shultz and senior Soviet officials in Moscow this week, but cautioned against expecting a quick agreement on removing all nuclear weapons from European soil. ``Mr. Shultz deservedly received the warm congratulations of his fellow ministers,'' said Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers here with Shultz.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Peter Carrington said the Moscow talks had ``enhanced'' the prospects for an agreement on scrapping medium-range nuclear missiles now based in Europe.

Several ministers, however, appeared to have been been caught off guard by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's latest offer on arms control, particularly his proposal to eliminate shorter-range nuclear missiles - those with a range of 300-600 miles - from Europe.

Shultz said a decision about NATO's ``next step'' would be made ``promptly'' - but only after further consultations with the allies.

Sir Geoffrey, who was equally cautious about the new Soviet offer, insisted that although ``significant progress'' had been made in the superpower negotiations on eliminating medium-range missiles (600-3,400 miles) from Europe, the question of shorter-range missiles was a ``remaining obstacle.''

Until now, according to the British official, the Soviet Union had sought to ``legitimize'' its ``monopoly'' of shorter-range SS-12 and SS-23 missiles by demanding a freeze on present levels of deployment and by denying the US the right to match Soviet levels. In his Prague speech less than a week ago, Sir Geoffrey said, Mr. Gorbachev was still ``pressing'' that position.

``If Mr. Gorbachev is now ready to abandon this Soviet claim to monopoly,'' the British foreign secretary told journalists, ``that will of course be very welcome.''

Some West European governments also expressed fears that a ``de-nuclearized'' Old World would leave their people vulnerable to Soviet superiority in conventional forces (believed to be 3 to 1), as well as in chemical weapons.

``It is essential,'' West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said after yesterday's meeting, ``to continue and press ahead with talks on reducing conventional forces and banning chemical weapons.''

Sir Geoffrey said: ``The harsh facts of life - geography and Soviet advantages in conventional and chemical forces - make nuclear deterrence indispensable for the foreseeable future to the security of the West, and of Western Europe in particular.''

Some US officials, meanwhile, expressed uncertainty on the specifics of Soviet offers.

Asked to explain the Soviet position on shorter-range nuclear missiles, a US official who participated in the Moscow talks said: ``I will not guarantee the clarity of any of their positions. I have dealt with them too long.... What you think you have gotten down clearly, you don't know until you have it all buttoned up, with all the i's dotted and all sentences with periods after them.''

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