WITH Soviet tanks already speeding home from Czechoslovakia on railroad cars, the Vienna negotiations on reducing conventional forces in Europe are beginning to look sluggish. Peace appears to be breaking out all over the continent, while President Bush's self-imposed deadline for reaching a conventional force (CFE) pact is fast approaching. With major differences yet to be resolved diplomats may have to scrap their schedule and step up the pace.
``There may be some interest in moving more quickly,'' says an administration official knowledgeable about the CFE talks.
The next round of Vienna negotiations, the sixth in the series, will start March 15. The seventh round is set for May, at which time negotiators may have to just keep working until disagreements are worked out.
In Brussels at a NATO meeting in May 1989, Bush predicted a CFE pact could be ready in a year. At Malta, he and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to a multinational signing in 1990.
A diplomatic platitude holds that arms control agreements become possible when no longer necessary. The CFE correlative may be that arms reductions become possible when already occurring.
In March 1989, CFE talks opened to warnings that they were complex, with many nations and types of equipment involved, and could take years to finalize. In March 1990, NATO and Warsaw Pact nations are scrambling to make CFE limits reflect troop withdrawals necessitated by the fast-changing scene.
Soviet forces are already being booted out of Czechoslovakia, per agreement between Mr. Gorbachev and Czech president Vaclav Havel that calls for eliminating the Soviet military presence by 1991. A similar Soviet-Hungarian pact is coming. US troops in Europe face a different pressure - congressional budget cuts that may make CFE limits moot.
CFE is just ``putting into law something that's happening anyway,'' says a Pentagon consultant on conventional force issues.
In recent weeks the big news about CFE was the agreement between the US and the Soviet Union on the number of troops each will keep in Europe. Soviet officials at last month's Ottawa Open Skies meeting told the US they would agree to Bush's troop proposal: 195,000 for each nation in the central part of Europe, plus an extra 30,000 for the US to be stationed in European nations outside the central zone, such as Britain and Turkey.
White House officials crowed that the deal gives the US the larger force stationed on foreign European soil. But within a few days of its being struck, analysts back in Washington were beginning to complain that the troop agreement in fact will greatly limit US military flexibility.
For one thing, US troops in the central zone are concentrated in West Germany. If a reunified Germany votes to send them packing, relocation anywhere else in Europe is unlikely.
``We may in fact be buying a 30,000 overall limit on US troops in Europe,'' says Stan Sloan, a conventional forces analyst at the Congressional Research Service.
For another, military personnel in the Soviet Union itself would be unconstrained. The USSR could place as many troops as it wanted on its own western border to counterbalance the 30,000 US troops on the central zone's flank.
Political considerations could render these objections unimportant. Congress might oust GIs from Germany before the Germans do, and given the state of their economy the Soviets are unlikely to maintain large forces just over their own border. Still, by agreeing to the troop limits ``one hopes the administration knows what it's doing,'' says Lee Feinstein, senior research analyst at the Arms Control Association.
Unresolved is whether there will also be alliance-wide manpower limits included in CFE. The Soviets have proposed such limits but ``it's not clear how formal their proposal was,'' says an administration official. The US does not care to talk about alliance troop caps, but reportedly a number of NATO and Warsaw Pact nations are interested, partly because they want to constrain the forces of a unified Germany.
Also unresolved are a number of CFE details that include:
Tanks and armored vehicles. Numbers are not an issue here - both sides want 20,000 tanks per alliance, and around 30,000 armored vehicles. But definitions and sublimits are still open.
Aircraft. The thorniest remaining CFE problems deal with aircraft. US officials are speculating that agreement on these problems will not be reached, and CFE 1 will be signed without planes included.
At issue is a Soviet desire to exclude aircraft it says are for training, not combat. The West has agreed to exclude some 2,500 primary trainers, but is balking at Warsaw Pact insistence on excluding 1,500 to 2,000 more trainers.
Verification. NATO put a detailed plan for verifiying a CFE agreement on hold at the end of the last round of talks, in late February. Both sides agree that intrusive verification, such as surprise on-site inspections, will be needed. But there is no agreement on stationing inspectors on each other's soil, and the number of inspections allowed.