UNITED NATIONS — The United States and the Soviet Union inched closer Monday to a summit centered on arms control as a result of a new round of high-level diplomacy climaxed by President Reagan's U.N. speech, which was conciliatory in tone despite the festering Nicholas Daniloff case.
Both sides talked optimistically about the prospects for an agreement to limit--or perhaps eliminate entirely--intermediate-range nuclear missiles located in Europe. This would provide the sort of arms control advance that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev says he wants before he will agree to a summit meeting with Reagan.
There was more caution in addressing other arms control issues, but the atmosphere was upbeat on them as well.
The sudden emphasis on possible agreements followed months of controversies that raised serious questions about whether Reagan and Gorbachev would ever meet at the summit that they had agreed in principle to hold this year. The developments followed meetings between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze in Washington on Friday and Saturday.
Nevertheless, the Soviet spy charges against Daniloff, Moscow correspondent of U.S. News & World Report, continued to hang over the superpower relationship. Spokesmen on both sides insisted that the impasse could be broken, but both implied that the other must make the first concession.
The result was contradictory. On the subject of arms control--long considered the central issue between the superpowers--the tone was very positive. But on most other topics, the relationship was decidedly chilly.
The Daniloff case produced a torrent of harsh words on both sides, but top officials of both governments said there was more movement toward a nuclear arms control pact than at any time since former President Jimmy Carter and former Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev signed the second strategic arms limitation treaty in 1979.
"All this gives me hope," Reagan said after reviewing the progress toward an intermediate-range nuclear force agreement. "The ice of the negotiating stalemate could break--if both sides intensify their effort in the new round of Geneva (arms control) talks."
Reagan's speech contained plenty of the anti-Soviet and anti-Communist rhetoric that has been the trademark of his public life. But much of it was perfunctory and was all but labeled by the President, himself, as old stuff.
For instance, he attacked Soviet policy in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua. But he reminded his audience that he had made exactly the same points in virtually the same words in his United Nations speech last year.
On their side, the Soviets echoed the U.S. optimism on arms control while offering a sour assessment of other topics on the U.S. agenda.
Shevardnadze is scheduled to deliver the Soviet assessment of East-West relations in his speech to the United Nations today. But, in advance of that speech, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir F. Petrovsky told a press conference Monday that Reagan's speech was "disappointing."
"After the (Shultz-Shevardnadze) dialogue that was just held in Washington, which was overall constructive, we had expected a statement that would have reflected that," Petrovsky said through an interpreter. "What we have heard is what I would call a very negative attitude."
Nevertheless, Petrovsky said that Moscow is ready to sign an intermediate-range nuclear force agreement which, at least in the sketchy way he described it, sounded very much like what the United States has been proposing.
In effect, both Washington and Moscow seem to be playing opposite sides of the same game--dangling out the possibility of an agreement on arms control in an effort to tilt the rest of the relationship in their direction.
For instance, Shultz has said that a "meaningful" summit meeting would be impossible until Daniloff is allowed to leave the Soviet Union. That apparently means that if the Soviets want to cash in on arms control progress, they must settle the Daniloff case in a way that Washington would accept.
For their part, the Soviets made it clear that they would like to reach an intermediate-range missile agreement immediately, then turn to their top arms control priority--stringent limits on U.S. "Star Wars" missile defense plans. Despite his offer to delay "Star Wars" deployment for seven years, Reagan gave no hint that he is willing to accept greater limits.
The Soviets say that the Daniloff matter can be settled quickly to remove it as a roadblock in the Washington-Moscow relationship. While they do not spell out in public the sort of solution they are proposing, they have hinted strongly that it would involve a trade for Gennady F. Zakharov, a Soviet citizen employed by the United Nations who is awaiting trial on espionage charges in the United States. Reagan has said repeatedly that such a swap is unacceptable.
"Please underline this again and again: The possibility for resolving that case does indeed exist--the possibility for resolving it (is) very rapid, very rapid," Petrovsky said. But he added that the matter is "in the hands of the Americans."
A senior U.S. official said, however, "I know of no new proposals" by the Soviets in the Daniloff case, indicating that Petrovsky was referring to Moscow's original proposal for a Daniloff-Zakharov trade.