Real progress is within reach in strategic arms reduction negotiations, if Moscow is interested, according to informed United States officials. But there is disagreement within the Reagan administration over the value of such a treaty, and the officials are divided when assessing the chances for progress.
For the time being, treaty advocates seem to be in the ascendancy. This week's talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze should provide a fresh view of Soviet interest in strategic arms talks.
The Soviet Union has apparently decided to let the talks lie relatively dormant for now, some US officials say. But many of these officials believe that Moscow is seriously erring in doing so and that the Kremlin should work for an accord with the Reagan administration.
The Soviets ``have taken to heart'' President Reagan's commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), says a well-placed official. Moscow has also apparently decided to focus on intermediate nuclear forces (INF), he says, and to wait for a new US administration before serious strategic arms reduction talks (START) on weapons that include intercontinental ballistic missiles.
A Soviet specialist adds that Moscow appears convinced that the US commitment to SDI will dwindle no matter who succeeds Mr. Reagan.
What scares Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about SDI is the enormous expenses required if a full scale US-Soviet ``star wars'' competition begins, says another official. Mr. Gorbachev's broad objective, he adds, appears to be to find constructive agreements that lessen international tensions and allow him to focus on revitalizing the Soviet economy. In this quest, he says, Gorbachev would apparently like to hold down defense-spending increases. This is part of the reason that Moscow is so adamant in opposing SDI and why it links any progress on START to an agreement limiting star wars, he says.
However, a number of US officials say the Soviets are making a mistake in leaving START dormant. Both countries are losing time, they say, and no one can be sure what attitude the next administration will take on SDI or START. And they believe the Soviets have erroneously concluded that an INF accord with a conservative Reagan administration would make it hard for US conservatives to oppose future arms accords.
``US conservatives are already saying that INF is militarily trivial,'' says a senior official. Indeed, a number of senators, led by Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana, are circulating letters to colleagues in a bid to keep an INF accord from setting a precedent on verification questions or precluding certain military options, such as future cruise missile deployments.
And arms control advocates are also lukewarm about the emerging INF agreement. ``It's a very modest step,'' says Spurgeon Keeny, executive director of the Arms Control Association. ``Without some action in the strategic area, it has no military significance.''
Finally, one official adds that without a strategic accord either side can retarget its strategic missiles on Europe and ``we would be back to where we were'' before the proposed INF accord. He was particularly worried about Moscow retargeting its SS-25s on Europe.
Moscow should recognize, says one well-placed source, that the only way to put pressure on SDI is to get very close to a START agreement.