All the pieces finally fell into place. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev is coming to Washington on Dec. 7. An agreement under which the superpowers will eliminate all missiles with a range of 300 to 3,000 miles will be signed. The two leaders will try to move closer to a deal on deep cuts in longer-range strategic offensive missiles. And if they can overcome the very real problems in those negotiations, President Reagan will go to Moscow next year to sign what would truly be a historic treaty.
Both Reagan and Gorbachev deserve credit for bending enough to keep the momentum of negotiations going.
Just eight days ago Gorbachev torpedoed the prospects for an early summit meeting by demanding that Reagan first accept an agreement in principle to negotiate constraints on the development and deployment of anti-missile defensive systems. The Soviets came under worldwide criticism for seemingly playing games with arms control--of jeopardizing the prospects for progress by trying to wring last-minute concessions as the price for a summit. This week they retreated to a more modest demand that the American President be willing at least to talk about such constraints. Soviet officials say that Reagan agreed--and he apparently did.
It is still unclear what brought about the seemingly deliberate Soviet retreat from reason last Friday. According to reports from Moscow, Gorbachev had encountered some tough political challenges within the Kremlin and felt that a summit trip to Washington would be inopportune. If that was the case, you have to assume that he has now overcome those obstacles.
The prospective signing of a Euromissile agreement will be extremely important in its own right. Obviously, however, the centerpiece of the Washington summit really will be the 50% reduction in offensive strategic missiles that both sides have agreed on in principle.
The evidence strongly suggests that Gorbachev, who is fighting an uphill battle to reform Soviet society and modernize the troubled economy, badly needs a period of calm in East-West relations. Although the evidence is less clear, many Western experts are convinced that he hopes that a less tense international atmosphere will also make possible some significant shifts in resources from the defense Establishment to the civilian economy.
The West, of course, cannot afford to base its security policies on hopeful readings of the still blurry arena of Kremlin politics. Progress toward arms reductions must proceed a step at a time, with adequate verification of compliance at each stage.
The biggest stumbling block to a 50% cut in strategic offensive weapons is the question of how to regulate the development of the Soviet and American missile defense programs. Ultimately Washington must be willing to go beyond mere discussion to agreements setting forth the dividing line between allowable and non-allowable testing. At least the President, however grudgingly, has taken the first essential step.