WORLD

Talking down ‘Star Wars’

Michael Posner July 16 1984
WORLD

Talking down ‘Star Wars’

Michael Posner July 16 1984

Talking down ‘Star Wars’

WORLD

Michael Posner

The Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, flew to Moscow last week for what were officially described as routine consultations. By leaving, he escaped the oppressive heat of Washington’s summer—and possibly made an important advance in East-West relations. The Soviet diplomat carried a message to the Kremlin from U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, affirming the Reagan administration’s acceptance, without preconditions, of Moscow’s earlier invitation to hold talks in Vienna this fall on the demilitarization of space. Said Dobrynin, arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetveyo Airport: “I am hoping for the best, but I am not a magician.” Washington and its Western allies are unsure whether or not the Soviet offer to negotiate an antisatellite weapon treaty is sincere. For one thing, arms control talks of almost any kind would enhance President Ronald Reagan’s chance for re-election in November, and students of the Kremlin believe that Moscow does not want to give Reagan any political advantage. Many analysts believe Moscow’s June 29 offer was simply another stage in the continuing propaganda war between the two superpowers and that the Politburo expected

the White House to dismiss the suggestion out of hand. Reflecting that view, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe suggested at the end of his threeday visit to Moscow last week that the “Soviet government does give the impression that it is more interested in pillorying certain Western governments than in testing their intentions in serious negotiations.”

But other analysts, including Paul Warnke, an arms control negotiator in the Jimmy Carter administration, said that they regarded the Soviet proposal as genuine. It reflects, Warnke said last week, Moscow’s concerns about U.S. technological prowess and the Kremlin’s desire to prevent the United States from gaining superiority in the embryonic field of space-based weapons.

The Reagan administration itself was divided on the appropriate response. Inside the White House, the president’s political advisers concluded that the offer provided an opportunity to

portray Reagan as a peacemaker. A new set of talks in Europe would go hand in hand with an already well-advanced rhetorical retreat from the president’s characterization last year of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” But U.S. officials seized on the Moscow offer as a chance to negotiate even wider arms control discussions. If the Soviets are indeed worried about U.S. progress in developing antisatellite systems, the state department argued, then Washington might be Q able to use that as lever-

2 age to restart the stalled

3 talks on strategic and in* termediate nuclear x weaponry. Moscow broke 5 off both sets of negotiations late last year, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began its long-planned deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe.

Initially, the state department’s view seemed to prevail. Indeed, the adminstration’s first reply to Moscow—on the same day the Soviet offer was made—was to suggest that the other arms control issues be added to the agenda. But Kremlin officials immediately declared that to be an unaccept-

_ able precondition. The

official Soviet news agency, TASS, denounced the response, and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, at a luncheon for Howe, accused Washington of inventing impossible conditions in order to avoid talks. The administration quickly denied any such intention. Said state department spokesman John Hughes: “We have indicated our willingness to discuss any subjects that the Soviets put forward. We have also expressed our intention to put forward subjects of our own, ; including offensive ; weapons that go through ! space.” The explanation

may have appeased the Soviets for by week’s end in a brief message carried by TASS, Moscow again reissued its invitation to discuss space weapons.

Those weapons might include missile systems previously discussed at Geneva during negotiations on strategic and intermediate-range arms. But Gromyko, regarded as the chief designer of Soviet foreign policy, has insisted that the earlier talks could not resume until NATO withdraws the cruise and Pershing lí missiles deployed in West Germany, England and Italy. Shultz’s message to Moscow, removing any preconditions to talks on space weaponry, came after an extraordinarily intense round of quiet but visible diplomacy which included Reagan’s annual reception for foreign ambassadors on the south lawn of the White House. At the June 30 barbecue, Dobrynin held an animated conversation with both Reagan and Shultz during dinner. Then on June 3 Shultz and Dobrynin met again for a 90-minute breakfast at the state department. It was during the breakfast meeting that the Americans formally tendered their acceptance of the Soviet proposal.

It remained unclear whether the Vienna talks—if they actually take place—would simply serve as a preliminary planning session or would actually constitute the beginning of formal negotiations on demilitarizing space. In fact, the Reagan administration has not yet developed a clearly defined bargaining position on the subject. An interagency task force is now aiming to finalize Washington’s stance by early August, but there are several imposing hurdles ahead. One is that most Pentagon experts consider an antisatellite weapons treaty unverifiable and they contend that Washington would be ill-advised to commit itself to talks that might well lead to limitations that could never be confirmed. For its part, the defense department wants Reagan to reserve—as a minimum—the right to continue testing antisatellite weaponry while negotiations proceed. Indeed, one test is scheduled for this fall. But the Kremlin has called for a moratorium on all testing and deployment during the talks, as well as a total ban on weapons that threaten satellites at any level in space. A second obstacle is the concern of many military planners that any antisatellite pact might jeopardize Reagan’s “Star Wars” ballistic missile defence program.

Despite the uncertainties, Reagan and his political advisers have plainly decided that there is little to be lost byagreeing to talk. If the Soviets send Dobrynin back to Washington with another firm nyet, Reagan will have scored a propaganda point. At least, he has put the ball squarely in Moscow’s court.

Keith Charles