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Scoreless Tie in Arms Talks as East, West Trade Rhetoric

July 21, 1985|Don Cook | Don Cook is The Times' diplomatic correspondent in Europe.

GENEVA — From Stockholm to Vienna to Geneva, East-West negotiations on arms-control and security questions are dead in the water, with only meager hopes that the planned November summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev might start the engines turning.

After two rounds of the new nuclear arms talks in Geneva, high-ranking American officials no longer see much realistic or practical possibility of achieving any substantial agreement with the Soviet Union to limit nuclear weapons in the remaining lame-duck years of the Reagan Administration. A senior State Department official who recently briefed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Council in Brussels summarized the deadlock:

"The Soviets are hardly interested in negotiating away their current advantage in strategic or intermediate-range missiles. So far they are not prepared to negotiate with us over the Strategic Defense Initiative project at all. And it is highly probable that they will try to break out of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty entirely when they feel they have a sufficiently advantageous mix in offensive and defensive strategic capabilities."

In the face of prolonged superpower deadlock in Geneva, is anything likely to happen in the other two arms-control negotiations? At best, there might be some marginal window-dressing agreements in Stockholm, where 35 states that signed the Helsinki agreements are trying to negotiate a new accord on military confidence-building and security understandings to lessen the risk of surprise attack and war.

In Vienna, where the talks between 12 NATO and seven Warsaw Pact powers on reduction of conventional forces in Central Europe are now in their 12th year, one Western ambassador summarized the situation:

"This negotiation is like one of those hospital patients with a terminal illness, kept alive only by life-support systems that nobody can detach."

But as the buildup for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit gets under way, the deadlocks are not only hardening--the rhetoric is becoming more threatening. Not only has there been an unswerving hard line in the nuclear talks in Geneva, Gorbachev himself has warned publicly that the Soviet Union might have to "reevaluate" the talks if the deadlock continues. This implied threat, of course, is being echoed in the Soviet press, and by Georgi Arbatov, the Soviet specialist on American affairs who was recently in Geneva to attend a private colloquy on East-West relations.

"If we conclude that the Geneva talks are a mere charade and a cover-up for the U.S. arms buildup," Arbatov said, "then it would be the duty of every honest man to walk out."

Echoing American officials who conclude that the Soviet Union is preparing to abandon the 1972 ABM treaty, Arbatov's mirror-image comment was that the Reagan Administration's stance on the unratified 1979 SALT-II treaty "is salami tactics to dismantle all U.S.-Soviet arms-control agreements" a slice at a time.

So as the summer break in all these negotiations begins and preparations for a summit meeting get under way, the real underlying trend in Geneva seems to be not so much a search for a basis of negotiation but maneuvering to fix the blame on the other side for continued deadlock or possibly even a rupture of the talks.

"I do not see the United States making concessions to the Soviet Union simply to get them to negotiate," a member of the U.S. delegation said. "If they want to negotiate, we are ready, but we are not going to make concessions in advance."

In the U.S.-Soviet nuclear talks during 1982-83, the sole Soviet objective apparently was to block the deployment of American cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe--not to find any agreement on limits on numbers of weapons. When the missiles then began to arrive in December, 1983, the talks were promptly broken off by the Soviets.

And now, once again, a Geneva negotiation is under the implied threat of a walkout, of suspension, break-off or some other form of Soviet rupture. Once again, as in 1983, the Soviet aim, as evidenced so far in Geneva, is not to negotiate any agreement on limits on the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative but to block the program entirely.

However much the Soviet Union might be worried about the American high-technology edge--and the possibility of a major breakthrough in the SDI program that they would be hard put to match in the years ahead--this does not add up to any great immediate pressure on them to get down to cases and negotiate in Geneva. In particular, it does not lead them to want to make any deals involving simultaneous limits on their offensive capabilities while the United States pursues its "Star Wars" defensive program.

It will not be the Reagan Administration that achieves the major breakthrough on SDI or has to make the crucial decisions and vote the necessary funds to proceed from research to testing to deployment. That is for the 1990s at the earliest. Gorbachev will be around probably into the next century, and he can wait.

Whether Gorbachev is wise to wait, whether the world will be any safer if the hiatus in arms-control efforts goes on and on, is another matter. But as the negotiators in Stockholm, Vienna and Geneva return home to relax and reassess the situation, about all they have to look forward to is more of the same when they begin drifting back to the familiar conference rooms in September.

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