Surely the Soviet Union is not deliberately trying to sabotage progress toward arms control and better relations in general with the United States; too much of the evidence points in the other direction. But two episodes in recent days, at least one of them dangerous and irresponsible, have provoked reactions that range from bewilderment to outrage.
The Pentagon disclosed last week that the Soviets had test-fired two long-range missiles from Tyuratam, in Central Asia, toward an area of the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles north of Hawaii. The first test was a failure. The second missile, carrying nine dummy warheads, splashed downin the rectangular target area.
Moscow, in accordance with a 1971 agreement, informed the United States on Sept. 26 that the missiles would be test-fired into two target areas, one northwest of the Hawaiian island chain and the other only 360 miles southwest. After a vigorous American protest, the Soviets apparently dropped plans for using the closer of the two impact zones.
The Soviet tests did not violate international law. However, officials in Washington assert that this country has never test-fired missiles toward or over Soviet territory, and considers Soviet missile shots so close to Hawaii to be both dangerous and unnecessary.
To quote a State Department spokeswoman: "We note that the Pacific Ocean is a vast expanse and that there is no reason why they could not choose another area for their tests. There is always an element of danger in tests like these." Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) went further, calling the tests"a provocation of the worst kind . . . . If there had been the slightest miscalculation, this Soviet test warhead could have landed on a population center in the Hawaiian islands."
The Senate made the same point in a resolution, approved by a vote of 96 to 0, that demanded a Soviet apology and assurances that no further tests will be conducted so close to U.S. territory.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is investigating a Soviet ship's use of a laser beam during the missile tests that temporarily "damaged the eyes of a U.S. pilot" when the intense light flashed across his aircraft. So far no one is officially accusing the Soviets of intentionally trying to blind crew members of the U.S. reconnaissance plane; the Soviets may have been merely using lasers to track the warheads of the test missiles. But it is known that both sides have experimented with the use of laser weapons to blind enemy troops--experiments that deserve to be roundly condemned. Actual, deliberate use of lasers by either side to blind human beings would be a moral outrage.
Even if one gives Moscow the benefit of the doubt on the laser injury, there is no sensible explanation for the Soviet test-firing of missilesso close to American territory. The Soviets would be wise not to do it again.