Arms-control and foreign-policy experts attending a conference in Atlanta the other day did a double-take when Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin suggested that Moscow might allow on-site inspection of a controversial radar installation in central Siberia. Reiterating the Soviet claim that the radar is designed for tracking space satellites and will not violate the 1972 treaty limiting anti-missile defenses, Dobrynin said that "we may even invite . . . some of your skeptics to inspect the installation when it is completed."
Experts attending the conference at the Carter Center at Emory University were divided over how valuable such a visit would be. But Dobrynin's offer, if genuine, would mark an intriguing departure from the Soviet Union's longstanding resistance to the policing of arms-control agreements by on-site inspection.
As it turns out, Dobrynin's "invitation" seems to have been more propagandistic than real anyway. U.S. officials trying to follow up on the offer got nowhere.
The incident underscores the unfortunate fact that the Kremlin is still not ready to negotiate seriously in Geneva. It is playing to the galleries, hoping to generate political pressures in America and Western Europe that will force Washington to negotiate on essentially Soviet terms.
Kremlin-watchers in this country disagree on many things, but on one point there is a consensus: The Soviet seriousness in negotiations is directly proportional to the degree of privacy that surrounds the talks in question. The louder the Soviets beat the propaganda drums, the more unpromising the prospects of agreement.
That being the case, the recent noises from Moscow are not encouraging.
Both sides agreed, in advance of the resumption of arms-control talks in Geneva in March, that they would keep the content of the negotiations confidential instead of running out each day to try for maximum propaganda advantage. Neither side is ever pristine-pure in adherence to such agreements, but in this case the Soviets are clearly the chief offenders.
Within days after the talks got under way, Soviet negotiator Viktor P. Karpov appeared on Moscow television with an attack on the American negotiating stance.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, followed up with an interview in Pravda announcing a six-month moratorium on deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles targeted on Western Europe and urging a freeze on deployment of U.S.-made missiles in Europe.
Gorbachev knows that such a freeze has already been rejected by member governments of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization because the effect would be to lock in an overwhelming Soviet advantage in medium-range nuclear weapons. But he also knows that a lot of people, especially in Europe, can be relied on to applaud any initiative from Moscow, no matter how shopworn or unbalanced, if it purports to promise a slowing of the arms race.
In still another theatrical gesture the Soviets offered a moratorium the other day on nuclear-weapons testing, effective Aug. 6. The offer was announced not in a formal communication to Washington but in a letter to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based group that is routinely critical of Administration arms policies.
The point is not that the Soviet Union is wrong on every count--it is arguable that the Administration should pursue a comprehensive nuclear test ban--but that the pattern of Soviet grandstanding is not conducive to genuine progress in Geneva.
The unavoidable conclusion is that the Soviets are marking time in Geneva while Gorbachev, the new head man in the Kremlin, has a go at charming Western electorates into pressuring their own governments to see things the Soviet way.
The emerging Soviet response to accusations of treaty violations is an especially interesting case study. The three allegations of Soviet treaty violations that are receiving the most attention are:
--Construction of a big new radar at Krasnoyarsk that, as most U.S. experts see it, will violate the ABM treaty.
--Encoding of telemetry data in Soviet missile tests, in violation of the spirit if not the letter of the SALT II agreement that both sides have agreed to observe.
--Prospective deployment of two new land-based intercontinental missiles instead of the one allowed by SALT II.
Last month 23 liberal-to-moderate House Democrats, all supporters of arms control, wrote a letter to Gorbachev warning that seeming Soviet treaty violations endanger ongoing negotiations. They wanted him to understand that concern over Soviet non-compliance is not limited to a few zealots in the Administration.
The same message was forcefully delivered to Dobrynin at the Atlanta conference by several powerful House and Senate members of both parties--including Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the most influential Democrat on defense questions, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), member of the congressional watchdog team at Geneva.