MOSCOW — Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, pledging a positive response to the U.S. disarmament initiative, called Monday for an agreement between the superpowers to end the modernization and testing of nuclear weapons.
"The Soviet Union supports the U.S. initiative," Gorbachev told a brief Kremlin press conference. "We would also propose that the initiative be expanded and that the concept be made more complete by adding the reduction in nuclear tests to the cuts in nuclear weapons.
"If we are discarding nuclear weapons," Gorbachev asked, "why do we then still need nuclear tests? We should dispel the concern of the world community, and the Soviet Union is ready for this."
In his remarks Monday about the U.S. arms proposals, President Bush made no reference to testing, some of which, Pentagon officials have contended, must continue in order to maintain the assurance that U.S. nuclear weapons will work.
But Bush did say that he hopes to send a team of U.S. officials "soon" to the Soviet Union to "lay out directly" his new proposal to produce sharp reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Gorbachev, speaking with reporters after meeting Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, said the Soviet Union will not attempt to match the scope of the U.S. measures immediately but will try to go beyond them later with a program of its own.
Soviet officials said they will open immediate talks with Washington on the sweeping proposals announced Friday by the President to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal and that, on the basis of those discussions, Moscow may cut back its own nuclear forces.
"The Soviet Union is ready to undertake comparable actions," Vladimir F. Petrovsky, the first deputy foreign minister, told a separate press conference here. "Today, we have a real chance of a breakthrough to a nuclear-free world, and we simply must not miss this chance."
Petrovsky repeated that the Soviet Union, once it clarifies all the details of the Bush proposals, may announce unilateral reductions of its own. Moscow's first moves could come later this week when Soviet arms control officials travel to Washington to open the talks.
Col. Gen. Bronislav Omelichev, deputy chief of the Soviet armed forces' general staff, said that one of Moscow's matching moves would be to take its bombers off nuclear alert as the Pentagon did over the weekend.
The unilateral measures announced by Bush on Friday also included the elimination of all U.S. ground-launched, short-range tactical nuclear weapons and withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons, including warheads for the highly accurate cruise missiles, from the U.S. Navy's surface fleet. Bush also canceled development of the mobile MX missile.
"These are really historic proposals," Petrovsky said of the U.S. actions. "We consider this to be a very important political action by the President of the United States in the process of nuclear disarmament. It is profound, it is far-reaching, it could bring the world into an era free of nuclear weapons."
But the influential Soviet newspaper Izvestia suggested in a front-page commentary on Monday that the Kremlin had been surprised by the Bush initiative and was uncertain what action to take.
"That our response would be highly favorable was an easy guess, in Washington or elsewhere," the paper said. "What other reaction could there be when the other side announces a unilateral and unconditional step towards disarmament?"
The main question now, Izvestia remarked in unusually frank criticism of Gorbachev's handling of foreign policy, is, "Will there be an answer from us? If so, when and what?"
The Soviet Union, as much as the United States, was awaiting "a direct list of the reciprocal Soviet steps, or at the very least the firm promise to make them," according to Izvestia. Although weakened politically, Gorbachev is still able to go further, the newspaper said, adding, "A different kind of response was expected" of Gorbachev.
Expanding on Gorbachev's comments on Monday, Petrovsky said that the Soviet Union had long sought an end to nuclear arms testing as a way to curtail the development of new weapons and thus slow the arms race.
As part of its campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2000, it had unilaterally halted its own underground testing in 1985 but resumed the blasts 18 months later when Washington, arguing that reliable weapons required regular testing, failed to respond. Another, undeclared moratorium is now in effect.
Nuclear tests by other nations since 1971
Above Ground Below Ground Britain 0 20 France 41 134 China 23 13
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook, 1991.