Sounding a Soviet challenge on arms

ANDY BILSKI October 14 1985

Sounding a Soviet challenge on arms

ANDY BILSKI October 14 1985

Sounding a Soviet challenge on arms


The banquet was lavish and the dinner guests drawn from the cream of French society. In Paris’s elegant 18th-century Elysée Palace, home of French President François Mitterrand, Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev rose to propose a toast. But even as he raised his glass, it was clear that the youthful Soviet leader intended to make more than a routine gesture. Addressing the gathering of political notables, Gorbachev, 54, said that Moscow would do “all in its power to prevent the arms race from spreading into outer space.” He added, “It is commendable that the Soviet Union and France have taken the position that space should be an arena of peaceful co-operation and not one of military confrontation.” With that, the most intensely scrutinized state visit by a Soviet leader in years began.

The French press referred to it as “Operation Seduction.” In fact, Gorbachev’s courtship of Western Europe began even before he and his vivacious wife,

Raisa, arrived Wednesday on their sleek Iliyushin 62 jet at Paris’s Orly Airport for the four-day visit—his first to the West since succeeding the late Konstantin Chernenko as Soviet leader last March. In an interview with French television correspondents in Moscow —telecast both in France and in the Soviet Union—Gorbachev strove to equate the Kremlin’s interests with those of its neighbors to the west. “Europe is a powderkeg,” he said. “We live together in the same house, both you and us. We should work together even if some enter by one door and others by another door.”

For his part, President Ronald Reagan invited Western leaders, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, to a seven-nation meeting in New York on Oct. 23 and 24 for consultations before his scheduled November summit with Gorbachev in Geneva. The symbolism of each man’s overture was clear in Europe, whose support—for both Moscow’s newly disclosed arms control proposal and Washington’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDi)—is essential to both sides.

Despite the Reagan initiative and an announcement that Washington would

also consult with other NATO allies in Belgium and the Netherlands, Gorbachev clearly commanded the spotlight —and the agenda for public discussion —last week. He was well prepared for the task. He was by turns incisive,

amusing and—when the subject turned to Moscow’s human rights record—coldly impassive. And while Gorbachev was making points with lawyer-like argument —he holds a degree in law—his wife charmed her hosts as she toured Paris and attended private showings of haute couture from Pierre Cardin .

It was, from start to finish, a public relations victory. For one thing,

Gorbachev proposed a chemical-weapon-free zone in Central Europe that would be open to verification. For another, he declared that European security depends on “peaceful coexistence, détente, disarmament, increased confidence and international co-operation.” Projecting an image of candor and prag-

matism, Gorbachev added, “We are not pursuing a Metternich-like policy of balance of forces, of setting one state against another. We are realists.”

At a reception given by the speaker of the French National Assembly, Gorba-

chev confirmed that Soviet arms negotiators in Geneva had proposed cutting the level of offensive nuclear arms by 50 per cent, in return for “a complete ban” by both sides on space weapons. And for the first time, he offered to seek a separate accord on the reduction of medium-range missiles in Europe —“without the direct link with the problem of space and strategic armaments.” The proposal constituted a major departure from the previous Soviet position that the three subjects under discussion in Geneva be treated as a single package.

But it was the developing American space defence program, which Moscow considers to be a major threat, that provided the real focus for Gorbachev’s interest. In-

deed, France itself had been chosen for the visit because Paris has been the only Western ally to oppose SDI. Although Gorbachev failed last week to win Mitterrand’s signature on a communiqué condemning the militarization of space, the French president did say that substantial arms reductions would not be achieved unless they were “linked to the impossibility of transferring the arms race from Earth to space.”

For Gorbachev, that statement was likely all that he expected. The Soviet

strategy, analysts said, is directed not so much at Western governments as at Western opinion. If the media-conscious Soviet leader can persuade Europeans that space weapons represent the only impediment to serious arms control and a new era of détente, he may be able to strip away support for the American program.

The campaign against weapons in space was only part of the Soviet leader’s carefully orchestrated peace offensive.

Until last week the Kremlin had always insisted that the independent nuclear forces of Britain and France should be counted with American missiles in calculating any NATO aggregate. That insistence has traditionally raised negotiating obstacles, be-

cause Paris and London maintain that their arsenals are designed to deter attack on their own country, not on their European allies.

Last week, with the casual aplomb that has already become his trademark, Gorbachev in one swift stroke simply abandoned two decades of Soviet policy. His offer: to begin separate talks with France and Britain on medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Neither country, he said, would need to reduce its forces. Gorbachev’s surprise an-

nouncement means, as one Western diplomat put it, that “the Russians could find themselves playing chess simultaneously on three chessboards [strategic, intermediate and space weapons]. The question of which pieces should be on which board could cause enormous problems.”

The initial Western reaction to the proposal was cool. During a joint 90-minute news conference with his guest, Mitterrand declined to accept the offer, adding, “France does not refuse an exchange of views, but I do not think that it would be reasonable to think there could be negotiations.” British Foreign Secretary Sir Geofz frey Howe was only 9 slightly more encouragz ing, noting that bilateral S talks could occur only af-

ter the superpowers had agreed on radical cuts in their own arsenals.

Gorbachev also made an overture to the Netherlands, where the government will decide next month whether to deploy 48 American cruise missiles on its soil. In Paris, Gorbachev announced that Moscow was reducing the number of theatre-range weapons facing Europe’s capitals—the triple-warheaded SS-20. The Kremlin, he said, had ordered the number reduced to 243, a number that matches Soviet estimates of the combined number of French and British missiles. But Dutch Prime Minister Rudolph Lubbers said Friday that his nation will proceed with deployment if the global total of ss-20s exceeded the current level of 378. The current NATO estimate is 441. “The Soviet pledge is no reason to think that the Dutch cruise deployment plans are now uncertain,” Lubbers added.

But Gorbachev did not escape concerted French attacks on other areas of Soviet policy. Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac delivered a sharp criticism of Moscow’s human rights record, saying:“I think with emotion of all those deprived of freedom because of their convictions. I am also thinking of those Jews who are not allowed to leave the country.” Even high-ranking government officials, who had banned street demonstrations during Gorbachev’s stay, voiced con< cern about Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords, in which Moscow pledged to allow free emigration. Prime Minister Laurent Fabius presented Gorbachev with a list of Soviet dissidents and other political prisoners whom France wants freed. Gorbachev pointedly avoided a direct response but he told French journalists on the eve of his visit, “We will concern ourselves with Soviet affairs, and you take care of French affairs.”

There were hard questions, too, about exactly what the Soviet offers added up to. In Geneva, where chief Soviet negotiator Viktor Karpov spent two days reading detailed position papers to the American delegation, U.S. officials welcomed the proposal, but after careful scrutiny labelled it “one-sided.” One obvious problem: the Soviet definition of what constitutes a strategic weapon. According to Moscow, it is any system under U.S. or Soviet control that can reach the other’s territory. By that logic, Soviet SS-20s facing Europe would not qualify for the proposed 50-per-cent cut, since they cannot reach U.S. targets, but the American cruise

and Pershing II missiles would count.

The definition pushes the Soviet estimate of U.S. strategic warhead totals to 3,300—compared with 2,504 for Moscow. To meet the 50-per-cent reduction figure, the Pentagon would have to dismantle 1,650 weapons, almost 400 more than the Red Army. As a result, the Soviets would be permitted to keep their arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which the Americans regard as particularly destabilizing.

Assessing the proposal, sources close to the American delegation in Geneva said that the Soviet formula seemed designed to take away the the U.S. advantage in high-tech weaponry. One specific Soviet suggestion is to ban cruise misssiles with ranges beyond 600 km, which would compel Washington to jettison its inventory of land-, seaand air-launched weapons while permitting Moscow to preserve its shorter-range cruise arsenal.

The Soviet negotiators are also proposing a freeze on all new strategic systems not yet deployed. That would allow the Soviets to proceed with two landbased intercontinental missiles now in the early stages of deployment, the SS-24 and SS-25, while barring the United States from developing weapons now in early' stages of development. Among them: the land-based MX and Midgetman missiles, the submarine-based Trident D-5 missile and the Stealth bomber. The standing U.S. offer would limit each side to 5,000 missile warheads, no more than half of which could be placed on land-based missiles. Said one U.S. official: “Their proposal would leave them with overwhelming nuclear superiority in Europe.”

In Washington the Reagan administration continued to insist that Star Wars was non-negotiable. In fact, the Pentagon last week issued a new report claiming that Soviet research into lasers for missile defence is more advanced than comparable U.S. developments. Already, said Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, “the Soviets have ground-based lasers that could interfere with our satellites.” The goal of the Soviet campaign against Star Wars, added Assistant Secretary Richard Perle, is to have the field to themselves.

Still, most observers of the superpower propaganda offensive awarded the week to Gorbachev. In dealing with foreign dignitaries and the world’s press, he was as confident and as adept as Ronald Reagan himself. What remained to be determined, as the White House and the Kremlin prepared for Geneva, was whether the two great communicators could bridge the iedological divide and talk plainly to each other.