The superpower agreement to scrap all medium-range nuclear missiles is neither a propaganda ploy nor a camouflage for trickery, according to arms control experts among the host of Slavic study specialists who gathered in Boston recently. The arms control experts among the some 2,000 scholars and government specialists who met here at the convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies were optimistic about the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty that was completed in Geneva this past week. None of them dismissed it as mere propaganda: Verification procedures are too strict and demanding for that, they agreed. Nor was it seen as a policy imposed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on a reluctant military.
The theme that emerged is that the Soviet military actually favors nuclear disarmament. According to these experts, Soviet military doctrine (as laid out in Soviet military writings) has been moving toward such disarmament since at least the late 1970s. The demand for nuclear supremacy held in the Soviet Union a decade ago first gave way to parity. That, in turn, has given way - since Mr. Gorbachev's speech at the 27th Communist Party Congress in early 1986 - to the official advocacy of ``reasonable sufficiency.''
Stephen Meyer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out that the Soviets are - for the first time - accepting the principle of asymmetric reductions: They will scrap some 1,500 warheads in the INF treaty, while the US destroys some 350. Formerly, the Soviets dismissed US proposals for, say, the asymmetrical reduction of the Soviet tank phalanxes in Central Europe by pointing to US preponderance in, say, aircraft carriers: We'll accept your superiority at sea if you'll respect ours on land. The category-by-category approach fostered by asymmetry brings fresh air to a deadlocked process.
Behind all this stand far-reaching changes in Soviet military doctrine. Doctrine is central to every military system since David and Goliath: It is the intellectual scaffolding that provides order for training, planning, and weapon acquisitions. The more complex the military tasks, the more elaborate its educational and training network.
As a military organization's training network becomes more elaborate, it produces more professional journals. The proliferation of journals - in this case Soviet journals - makes it easier for Slavic specialists in the West to track the East bloc's doctrines. Specific plans and weapons may be kept secret; doctrine can never be, so long as armies must train, and their commanders must think, write, and discuss their profession.
Nor is there any significant discrepancy between Soviet open and classified sources, according to the writings of Mary FitzGerald, of Washington's Center for Naval Analyses. The ideas in the Soviet public journal, ``Military Thought,'' differ little from the lecture materials of the Voroshilov Academy, which are now being declassified in Washington.
Raymond Garthoff opened the public analysis in 1954 with ``Soviet Military Doctrine,'' which suggested that the Soviets regarded nuclear weapons (in which they remained decidedly inferior until the mid-1960s) as simply enhanced firepower for what we would today call a ``conventional'' war. A preemptive first strike against US military targets was tacitly prescribed, once the political leadership decided war was certain.
This first-strike doctrine began changing in the mid-1960s, as emphasis turned to the immense costs of ``victory,'' and culminated in Brezhnev's 1977 speech at Tula, where the first-strike concept was discarded, while fears of ``mutual assured destruction'' (MAD) were advanced. In the 1980s, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, former chief of the Soviet armed forces' general staff, and others began treating the idea of limited nuclear war as an impossibility: Escalation was inevitable. Today, by contrast, precision-guided conventional weapons would be crucial in the event of superpower conflict. They do the job without devastating the world.
That Soviet military thinking has evolved toward nuclear deterrence may contradict stereotypes of Soviet bellicosity and imperialism. But the wars of this century may have not fostered optimism in the Soviet soul. Beaten by the Japanese in 1905, by numerically inferior but technically superior Germans in World War I, by the Poles in 1920, by the Germans again in 1941-42, the Soviets triumphed in 1943-45 largely because of a remarkable mobilization of patriotic fervor.
Could they do it again in the throes of nuclear war? The arms control experts, rooting their analysis in the context of Soviet history, contend that the marshals may have reasonable doubts, and that these doubts make them ready to accept Gorbachev's arms control initiatives.