VIENNA — The warming diplomatic breezes from the Reagan-Gorbachev summit thaw wafted through the European security conference in Stockholm, then arrived at the nuclear arms talks in Geneva and now come to Vienna.
In the long-running East-West negotiations on military force reductions for Central Europe, going on here since January, 1973, it begins to look at last as if agreement could be within reach. This would involve only modest token cuts in Soviet and American troops in Germany, but it would also inhibit any future manpower increases by the Warsaw Pact or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with 30 on-site inspections a year by both sides to monitor compliance.
The political implications of such an agreement would go far beyond the significance of the manpower figures. And if part of a package that included a new superpower accord in Geneva on reducing nuclear arsenals and a pan-European accord in Stockholm to reduce the risks of armed conflict, such a sweep of agreement would clearly constitute a major transformation of East-West relations and the nature of the military confrontation in Europe.
This is the prospect that the governments of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have opened up to the Warsaw Pact, offering timely new proposals in Vienna. The West, for a change, has gained a clear initiative and placed the ball firmly in the Soviet court. When the talks resumed here last week, the Soviet response was cautious and critical, but on the whole moderate enough to raise hopes that Mikhail S. Gorbachev, too, may see a great prize ahead within, say, the next two years.
A senior Western diplomat in Vienna, who has been involved in East-West negotiations for more than a decade, observed: "We may be seeing a major, historic strategic turn in Soviet policy, although so far it is too early to know whether Gorbachev is simply involved in a series of clever and interesting tactical maneuvers in these negotiations or whether he is really seeking a major change in relations with the West.
"In fact, he has a great opportunity. For him, this is the start of what may be 20 or 25 years in the Kremlin. If he can come to some sort of political modus vivendi with the West, that will give him the room he needs to concentrate on his losing domestic economic situation. It is the kind of situation that prompted Vladimir I. Lenin to make a major turn when he proclaimed his New Economic Policy back in the early 1920s. Will Gorbachev be another Lenin? We don't know yet, but that just might be what is happening."
Whatever Gorbachev and the Soviets do in this Vienna negotiation in the next year or so--and nobody in the most optimistic frame of mind expects anything to happen rapidly--on the NATO side there is a strong consensus that this is really the last chance for negotiations that have already gone on longer than any in European diplomatic history, so far wholly without results.
"If the Soviets are not prepared to negotiate an agreement within the framework of what we are now offering," one Western delegate said, "then I really do not see any further option except to put the Vienna talks on a file-and-forget basis, downgrade the whole thing and maybe just continue with occasional meetings here every month or so to see if anybody's got anything new to say."
The proposal from the NATO side has the great advantage of simplicity, making it therefore more difficult to pick apart or reject. It does not call for any major action by either side that in any way would affect the existing basic military dispositions in Europe.
NATO proposes that the Soviets withdraw 11,500 men from Eastern Europe and that at the same time the United States pulls 5,000 men out of Western Europe. The troops would leave through special control points and return to their homelands. After that, there would be a freeze, or standstill, on any further increase in force levels.
Simultaneously, the two sides would exchange order-of-battle data on the remaining forces down to battalion level, along with the exact location of each battalion barracks. Each side would then have 30 automatic inspections a year to verify the accuracy of the reported number of troops. Finally, the agreement would be in effect for a trial period of three years and would lapse automatically if a new agreement for further cuts could not be reached.
"From the Soviet standpoint we are of course asking for a great deal--secret military figures and the right to inspect their barracks and see what kind of boots their troops are wearing and the food they eat," an official in the U.S. delegation said. "Of course this is an awful lot for them to swallow. But we are not proposing anything that we are not prepared to accept for ourselves."