WASHINGTON — In a move to try to curb Soviet espionage, the United States on Friday ordered the Soviet Union and the Soviet republics of Byelorussia and the Ukraine to cut the staffs of their U.N.missions to 170 from a current total of 275 within two years.
The move, which was initiated by the State Department, marked the first time since the founding of the world body in 1945 that any limitation had ever been placed on the number of employees of a U.N. member state's mission.
The U.S. mission said in a statement that the "current size of the Soviet U.N. mission is not warranted by the staffing needs for official U.N. business. Moreover, it poses a threat to U.S. national security."
Although the statement made no charges of new, specific acts of espionage, it cited U.S. concern about "inappropriate activities" in the past and said the Soviet missions "unfortunately have continued to engage in activities unrelated to U.N. business, including espionage."
Soviet officials in New York made no official comment on Friday's action.
The State Department order was sent to the three missions, which are housed in the same complex in Manhattan, by U.S. Ambassador Herbert S. Okun in the absence of Permanent Representative Vernon A. Walters, who was in Morocco to attend a celebration marking King Hassan's 25 years on the throne.
Asked if Moscow might respond by expelling members of the U. S. Embassy, Bruce Ammerman, a State Department spokesman in Washington said, the United States "was prepared to reciprocate" if the Soviet Union retaliated. He drew the distinction between U.N. diplomats and Soviet and U. S. diplomats involved in bilateral relations.
Although the 1945 agreement establishing the headquarters of the international organization in the United States guarantees diplomats of member nations access to their jobs at the United Nations, the agreement permits the United States to limit this right in the interests of its own security. Washington has acted under this provision in the past to expel U.N. diplomats who have engaged in spying.
U.S. Right of Expulsion
Over the years, a number of Soviet and Warsaw Pact envoys have been ordered to leave the United States. The United States has also exercised its rights to expel Soviet nationals employed by the United Nations itself, though less frequently, and only in individual cases in which specific violations have been proven.
The Soviet mission, which has 243 employees, is the largest maintained by any of the 159 member nations. The U.S. mission, with 124 employees, is the second largest.
With the addition of a Ukrainian staff of 17 and a Byelorussian staff of 15, the total strength of the Soviet delegation is more than the combined staffs of the United States and China, at 116 the third largest mission.
Separate status for the two Soviet republics was established at the formation of the world organization at the insistence of Josef Stalin, who contended that Britain was achieving an unfair advantage because its then-overseas dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were each given a vote.
Under the U.S. order issued Friday, the staffs of Ukrainian and Byelorussian missions must be reduced to 10 apiece by April 1, 1988. The Soviet reduction was ordered to take place in stages, beginning with a cut to 218 by Oct. 1 of this year.
The U.S. move was heralded by hearings conducted last year by Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The hearings produced testimony that Soviet Bloc nations habitually use their U.N. missions for espionage.
A U.S. spokesman, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said a warning had been issued to the Eastern European Warsaw Pact nations that they should make no attempt to add to their staffs in compensation for the Soviet cuts.