CAUTIOUS hope is emerging here that the Soviet Union and the United States may be able to resolve outstanding arms control problems and hold a summit meeting in the first half of this year. Soviet and US officials are conducting what are described as "very intense negotiations" to resolve a serious dispute over implementing the treaty to limit conventional forces in Europe (CFE) signed last fall. An exchange of letters has taken place in recent weeks between President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on this issue.
Progress on all other arms control issues hinges on solving the CFE dispute. US officials have made clear they will not finish talks on the long-awaited Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) until this is cleared up. In turn, there will be no summit unless there a START agreement to sign.
After the CFE treaty was signed, there were widespread expectations that a START treaty would be concluded soon. A summit meeting was scheduled in early February on that basis, but was postponed when it became clear that the arms control process had run into serious problems.
The resignation in late December of liberal Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was a clear setback to US-Soviet talks, but progress was made during the visit of US Secretary of State James Baker III here last month.
The US is awaiting a reply to Mr. Bush's latest offer. US officials decline to discuss the contents of the letters, but a senior Western diplomat characterizes the Soviet proposals as "a step forward, but not adequate." For the US, the diplomat says, "it is clear what the bottom line is - and [the Soviets] haven't reached it."
But the mere fact of Mr. Gorbachev's involvement is significant, says another Western diplomat. It "indicates a real desire to remove this obstacle," he says. "If Gorbachev wants to continue with the reform process here, he has to have this CFE treaty."
According to this view, the Soviet interest in arms control is driven by the desire to release badly needed resources for the economy, resources now being wasted on military spending. Arms control also is key to opening up Soviet relations with the rest of the world, to creating conditions of security that will bring a flow of Western capital and technology into the Soviet Union.
In recent months, however, there has been abundant evidence that the Soviet military, which has supported the arms control policies of Gorbachev, no longer sees things this way. There are growing complaints from Soviet military circles and their conservative Communist Party allies, aired in the Soviet news media and elsewhere, that the arms control treaties and the CFE pact in particular are unequal deals.
Soviet officials complain that circumstances have changed since the 22-nation CFE pact was signed in a dramatic ceremony in Paris last November. The cuts in troops and armaments in Europe were based on the balance of forces between the two military alliances - NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets say.
Now, "the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, but NATO continues to function," argues Tass military analyst Vladimir Bogachev in an April 4 commentary. "Moreover, the Soviet Union has begun to pull out its troops from Eastern Europe. These changes can by no means be ignored."
Soviet officials, such as Marshal Sergei Ahkromeyev, a Gorbachev military adviser and a former chief of the general staff of the Soviet armed forces, have recently been loudly sounding a longtime Soviet theme - that NATO should follow the Warsaw Pact's example and dissolve itself as a military organization. They have been particularly disturbed by recent moves from former Eastern European allies, such as Czechoslovakia, to seek some form of association with NATO.
Still, analysts here suggest two reasons why the military may still want the CFE treaty to go ahead. One is that under the next phase of the treaty, Germany will make a significant cut in the number of its forces. Secondly, the Soviets are eager to push for Europe-style arms control in the Pacific, particularly with Japan. Gorbachev plans to revive calls for such security talks, including limits on the powerful US Pacific Navy, during his visit to Japan this week.
If CFE is to survive, the Soviets must give some ground to US charges that they have violated, in principle and spirit, the CFE agreement. Under the agreement, the Soviet Union is to reduce its forces in Europe to less than half their previous levels. For example, Soviet tank forces, which stood at 41,500 in July 1988, according to Soviet defense officials, are to come down to 13,300.
Soviets use loophole?
But when the Soviet Union turned over its official data following the treaty signing, it was revealed that about 20,000 tanks had already been moved east of the Ural mountains, where they fall outside the treaty's purview. Most of those tanks, as well as artillery and armored cars, will be used to replace older equipment. Technically this is not a treaty violation, but US officials believe the Soviets are using a loophole to evade the intent of the pact.
US attentions, however, have focused on the Soviet move to reclassify three infantry divisions, equipped with 3,700 tanks, as naval coastal defense units. This transfer took place before the treaty mandate was signed in December 1989, said Maj. Gen. Vladimir Kouklev, first deputy chief of the Ministry of Defense Legal Department, in an interview earlier this year with the Monitor.
The Soviet military official argued that it was the West that sought to exclude naval forces, protecting its advantage in ships and marines. Under those circumstances, he continued, the Soviet Union was compelled to strengthen its coastal defenses, assigning one division each to the Black Sea, Baltic, and Northern fleets. The Soviets threaten to reintroduce the need to limit naval forces if the US presses the issue.
"Our view is that is a shell game," says a US official. "The treaty covers equipment within a geographic area. You can't just change the name of it." According to press reports, Bush's latest letter offers a compromise by focusing not on the issue of principle, but rather on the numbers of equipment.
There are indications the Soviet military may be ready to make a deal on this basis. According to a Tass account of a meeting last week between Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and German politician Alfred Dregger, Marshal Yazov defended the transfer of the three divisions as "an entirely internal Soviet affair." But he added that "all the military equipment in the divisions was counted and included in the number of arms which we retain according to the treaty."