THE Reagan administration is correct to demand the Soviet Union dismantle an early warning radar that violates the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. But it's using a two-by-four where subtlety is required. Both sides failed to settle the dispute over the Krasnoyarsk facility at last week's treaty review meeting in Geneva. As a result, the US said it would not conclude strategic and space weapons talks in Geneva until Soviets agree to dismantle the radar. If the Soviets refuse to raze the facility, the US would also view it as grounds for withdrawing from parts or all of the 1972 pact.
The Krasnoyarsk radar is designed to give early warning of a ballistic missile attack. If completed, it would fill the last gap in the Soviets' early warning radar coverage. No problem there: The treaty allows both sides to field early warning networks. The violation stems from the radar's location. The treaty stipulates that early warning radars be placed on a nation's periphery and face outward. Krasnoyarsk is deep in the Soviet interior.
From the Soviet viewpoint, that spot makes sense: To get the same coverage legally, the radar should have been placed in extreme northeastern Siberia. But the harsh climate would have made building, manning, and maintaining the facility very difficult. The Soviets should have negotiated with the US to allow enough fudging on placement to give them the coverage they needed.
That mistake is compounded by stubborn Soviet insistence on a quid pro quo. When last week's session began, they said they would remove the radar's electronics, rendering it useless, if the US abides by a strict interpretation of the ABM Treaty for another 10 years. But Krasnoyarsk's location is a violation, with or without electronics. The Soviets are saying they will stop violating a treaty if the US agrees to continue abiding by it. Later, they resumed their call that the US dismantle early warning radars at Thule, Greenland, and Fylingdales in Britain.
The Soviets undercut their interests by playing directly into the hands of those in the US who would like to reinterpret the ABM treaty to allow broader tests of elements for the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI supporters have failed to build broad congressional and public support for their reinterpretation. What could be better for them than an unresolved treaty violation?
If President Reagan wants to bequeath to his successor a field fertile for progress in nuclear arms reductions, he should give the Soviets a graceful way out of the impasse. The Soviets have been sending out informal feelers about dismantling the facility altogether, no strings attached, for some time. They realize it's a major impediment to progress in arms reduction talks. But as long as the US shouts ``Violation!'' from the rooftops, the Soviets will dig in their heels.
The joint Standing Consultative Committee, originally set up under SALT I to deal with treaty compliance issues, should be the venue for resolving this dispute. President Reagan should live up to the motto on his desk: ``There is no limit to what a person can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit.'' Scoring propaganda points should be less important than getting rid of the radar.
As for Reagan's successor, he should forget any notion of reinterpreting the ABM treaty. One does not unilaterally change, either on paper or in practice, previously agreed-on rules of the game.
We prefer that the US abide by the strict reading of the ABM Treaty. As long as uncertainties remain about the regime surrounding ABM systems, the Soviets are unlikely to sign off on major cuts in strategic offensive systems, a goal both countries and the world share.
But if an administration takes the opposite view, then it should have the political courage to either negotiate amendments to provisions it finds objectionable, as provided for in the pact, or withdraw from it altogether.