The Road to Zero

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The very title of the document is a mouthful -- Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. It runs to 169 single-spaced typewritten pages, with 17 articles and three annexes. Nearly every word has been haggled over for years. Some brackets in the text, indicating passages still in dispute, were finally removed only last week.

Yet reduced to its essence, this mass of legalese is one of the simplest, most radical attempts in history by the leaders of two adversary nations to resolve a point of tension between them. Never before has the word elimination appeared in the heading of a nuclear arms-control treaty. It is a dramatic example of the practitioners of nuclear diplomacy taking a sword to the Gordian knot.

There is a short, simple version of how this agreement came about: Once upon a time the man in the White House said to the man in the Kremlin, "Hey, you've got a whole category of weapons we don't like. We've got a whole category of weapons you don't like. Why don't we just wipe clean the slate?" After 72 months of contentious, suspenseful, stop-and-go negotiation, the man in the Kremlin said, "O.K. It's a deal." With that, Mr. Gorbachev comes to Washington, pen in hand.

But before the ink is dry on the last page of the treaty, new disputes are emerging. Some Senators, presidential candidates and West European strategists are saying, Granted, it's the deal we asked for, but is it the one we should have asked for? And do we want it now? Two-thirds of the Senators must in effect answer yea for the treaty to become U.S. law. Their answer will depend in large measure on their understanding of the history of how the agreement came about.

And that history is anything but short or simple.

The Genesis of Zero

Early in his first term, Ronald Reagan was preparing to give one of the most important speeches of his presidency. He had inherited from Jimmy Carter a perplexing piece of unfinished business: what to do about a new class of missiles that Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union had arrayed against Western Europe. Each was mounted on a mobile launcher and armed with three highly accurate warheads that could be fired nearly 3,100 miles. In a minor coup, Western intelligence discovered that the Kremlin's strategic rocket forces secretly referred to this formidable weapon by the innocent-sounding name Pioneer, the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scout or Girl Scout. NATO designated it the SS-20 and warned that it constituted a major escalation in the arms race.

Under pressure from its NATO allies, the Carter Administration had committed the U.S. to the "dual track" decision of 1979. The U.S. would offset the Soviet missiles by deploying a new generation of its own "Euromissiles" -- Tomahawk cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles -- while at the same time making a good-faith effort to negotiate with the U.S.S.R. a compromise that would scale back the missiles on both sides.

Left to its own instincts and devices, the Reagan Administration might have abandoned both tracks of the 1979 decision. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, the Administration's most forceful and persistent skeptic about traditional arms control, would have preferred to let the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) negotiations languish -- the same treatment that was already in store for that other unwelcome legacy with the better-known acronym SALT (for Strategic Arms Limitation Talks). Perle doubted that the negotiating track would lead anywhere and that the West Europeans would have the gumption to follow through on deployment of the U.S. missiles.

But America's European allies were aghast that the new Administration might renege on the 1979 commitment. They had a friend in court in Alexander Haig, the hard-charging Secretary of State who had been NATO commander in the Ford and Carter Administrations. He made INF a test case to prove that the new President could simultaneously stand up to the Soviets in the military competition and sit down with them at the bargaining table. Haig pushed for a negotiating position similar to that favored by the Carter Administration -- fewer Tomahawks and Pershing IIs in exchange for fewer SS-20s.

Haig and other arms-control advocates had two reasons for seeking a deal that would reduce missiles in Europe rather than eliminate them entirely: 1) such an outcome seemed realistic and "negotiable," in that the Soviets might accept it; 2) leaving a few missiles in place would reinforce the credibility of the U.S. promise to defend its allies in the event of a Soviet attack.

But the State Department plan was not good enough for the President. It smacked too much of the half-a-loaf compromises of SALT. Reagan told his National Security Adviser of the time, Richard Allen, that he wanted a proposal "that can be expressed in a single sentence and that sounds like real disarmament."

Perle had just what Reagan was looking for: the "zero option." He proposed a straightforward, all-or-nothing package -- zero American missiles in exchange for zero SS-20s. That scheme could indeed be presented in a single sentence, which was at the heart of a speech the President delivered on Nov. 18, 1981: "The United States is prepared to cancel its deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles if the Soviets will dismantle their SS- 20, SS-4 and SS-5 missiles."

Since then much has changed. Brezhnev and two successors have gone to their graves by the Kremlin wall. All three angrily denounced the zero option as patently one-sided. So did many Western strategists. The U.S. was asking the Soviets to give up real weapons, already deployed at great expense, in return for the U.S.'s tearing up a piece of paper. Washington wags said it was like the Redskins trying to persuade the hated Dallas Cowboys to trade Tony Dorsett for a future draft pick. Administration officials privately conceded that the zero option was not intended to produce an agreement before NATO deployment began in late 1983. Rather, it was a gimmick -- part of an exercise in what Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt, Haig's chief deputy for arms control and Perle's nemesis, called "alliance management" -- to make sure the nervous West Europeans kept to the self-imposed deadline.

Burt and others pushed, over Perle's objections, a proposal for an "interim solution." Their plan would leave some American and Soviet missiles in place, just as NATO had originally envisioned in the dual-track decision of 1979. It was to be interim in name only: few strategic experts in the West expected -- or, more important, wanted -- NATO to be without any new missiles at all.

When the U.S. began deploying its missiles on schedule in late 1983, the Soviets walked out of the talks in Geneva and sulked in their tents for nearly 16 months. Haig had staged his own walkout from the Administration in 1982. As a quit-and-tell memoirist two years later, he bitterly denounced the zero option as a killer proposal, designed to be rejected. Now, as a Republican presidential candidate, he is criticizing the INF treaty as strategically unsound. All three Richards have also moved on. Allen has been succeeded by five National Security Advisers. Perle is presiding over seminars at the American Enterprise Institute and working on a novel about bureaucratic infighting over national-security policy. Burt, who will probably resemble a less than heroic character in Perle's novel, is Ambassador to West Germany.

But in the tangled, ironic and surprise-ridden history of those six years, there has been a curious constant: the zero option. The 27-word sentence that Reagan uttered in 1981 accurately presaged the treaty that Reagan and Gorbachev are scheduled to sign in Washington.

Even as it prepared to welcome the Soviet leader, the Reagan Administration could not resist the temptation to occasionally gloat over Moscow's apparent capitulation in the face of American steadfastness. Perle has been beaming with the pride of paternity and enjoying the last laugh. The Administration has convinced itself, and now wants to convince everyone else, that the INF treaty is not just an unprecedented accomplishment by the superpowers acting in concert -- the elimination of an entire class of modern weaponry -- but an unprecedented triumph of American persistence over Soviet intransigence. As Kenneth Adelman, the Perle ally who is outgoing director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, put it recently, "For once we had a negotiation, and the good guys won."

There is some truth to that claim. But it is not the whole truth, and it may not turn out to be the most important truth. The story of the INF treaty is also one of Soviet persistence, Soviet ingenuity and, yes, Soviet success. That is a critical element of any arms-control agreement: both sides must feel they succeeded. The Soviet Union set out to keep American missiles as far from its territory as possible. And this week it will sign an agreement doing just that.

The Tula Line

The game being played to a draw this week began about ten years ago, when Ronald Reagan was a radio commentator and Gorbachev was Communist Party boss for the Stavropol region. That was when the strategic rocket forces started deploying the SS-20s. But that same year, Soviet civilian leaders began to have doubts about whether more and more nuclear weapons like the SS-20 necessarily meant more security and power for the U.S.S.R. The Kremlin initiated a gradual shift in emphasis away from nuclear weaponry to conventional weaponry as instruments of Soviet influence and intimidation, particularly in Europe. In January 1977 Brezhnev gave a speech at a World War II commemorative celebration in Tula, a city south of Moscow. The Soviet leader laid down what became known in the West as the "Tula line." In that speech and subsequent elaborations, Brezhnev said nuclear superiority was "pointless," it was "dangerous madness" for anyone even to seek victory in a nuclear war, and the Soviets needed only nuclear forces that were "sufficient" to hold those of the U.S. in check.

Sufficiency was a word and a concept that had been commonplace among Western strategists for at least a decade. Soviet doctrine seemed finally to be catching up.

It was, as Soviets like to say, "no accident" that in the same month as Brezhnev's Tula speech, Nikolai Ogarkov became chief of the Soviet general staff. Marshal Ogarkov was a controversial choice among the top brass. He had been the top military representative to SALT. The civilian leadership apparently picked him because he too believed in sufficiency, parity and stalemate. He also favored Soviet-American agreements as a means of regulating the arms race.

Ogarkov, however, was no dove. The money saved by relying less on nuclear missiles he wanted to spend on advanced conventional weapons. He did not want those rubles diverted to the beleaguered Soviet consumer economy. He was finally demoted in September 1984. But the new chief of the general staff, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, was also a proponent of the idea that enough is enough in nuclear weaponry.

There was, in the Tula line, both good news and bad news for the West. A recognition of the need for nuclear sufficiency rather than superiority was welcome, especially if it meant that the Soviet Union might be coaxed into retiring some of its most threatening weapons. The bad news was that Moscow still seemed bent on increasing its influence in Europe -- and on using its huge conventional military strength to do so.

Besides, in Moscow's thinking, the partial denuclearization of Soviet military strategy required the much more thorough denuclearization of the American military presence in Europe. Moscow might be more willing to bargain away some of its own missiles, but it was more determined than ever not to sanction the stationing of new, land-based American nuclear weapons near the Soviet border.

On a number of occasions in the 1950s and '60s, the U.S. and its allies had installed American missiles in and around Europe as equalizers, to make up for the Soviet Union's geographical proximity and the numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact over NATO. In each case, some combination of American ambivalence, West European anxiety and Soviet neuralgia led to eventual withdrawal of the U.S. missiles. For example, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Khrushchev demanded the removal from Turkey of American Jupiter rockets (ancestors of the Pershing II) in exchange for his agreement to take Soviet SS-4s and SS-5s (ancestors of the SS-20) out of Cuba. Says one of Gorbachev's advisers: "The resolution of the Caribbean crisis established the principle that we would not threaten you with nuclear weapons from within the western hemisphere. But another principle was established too: We put you on notice that forever after we would regard American land-based missiles on the periphery of the U.S.S.R. as an unacceptable threat to our security."

The INF treaty that Gorbachev will be signing with Reagan this week will leave the U.S. without any ground-based missiles in Europe capable of hitting Soviet territory -- and without the right to deploy any such weapons in the future. That is every bit as much a mission accomplished in Soviet policy as the accompanying elimination of the SS-20s is a consummation of Reagan and Perle's original zero option.

The bottom line of the INF treaty in 1987 is Brezhnev's Tula line of 1977.

No Right, No Blessing

It has already become part of the U.S.-fostered mythology of INF that the Kremlin had to be dragged kicking and screaming into eventual acceptance of the zero option, that it was not until earlier this year that Gorbachev finally seized the long-standing American proposal and made it his own. Here, too, the history is more complex. On Nov. 23, 1981, five days after Reagan first unveiled the zero option, Brezhnev on a trip to Bonn proposed the eventual elimination of all medium-range weapons "directed toward Europe," plus the elimination of all shorter-range missiles.

For Brezhnev then, just as for Gorbachev now, what mattered most was U.S. missiles in Europe that could reach Soviet territory. For two years, from late 1981 until the end of 1983, Soviet negotiators hammered away at the unacceptability of any new American deployments. The head of the Soviet delegation at the talks in Geneva, Yuli Kvitsinsky, then a bright young star of the Soviet diplomatic corps, declared that the U.S. had no "right" to deploy missiles in Europe and the U.S.S.R. would never "bless" the stationing of even a single cruise missile or Pershing II east of the Atlantic.

Kvitsinsky's American counterpart was Paul Nitze, 80, a grand old man of American nuclear strategy. In 1982 they engaged in an extraordinary, one-on- one mini-negotiation -- the so-called walk in the woods -- that resulted in a tentative deal that would have sacrificed the Pershing II but allowed the U.S. a stripped-down deployment of cruise missiles to counter a residual force of SS-20s. Cruise missiles fly subsonically at low altitudes and are vulnerable to enemy air defenses. The Pershing II ballistic missiles arc to the edge of space and can strike targets inside western Russia in a matter of minutes. The deal was repudiated by both men's home offices. It was shot down in Washington (particularly by Perle) because it meant giving up the Pershing II, and in Moscow because it meant allowing even a few U.S. cruise missiles in Europe.

The first American missiles arrived in Europe in late 1983. The Soviet gerontocracy had painted itself into a corner, leaving no alternative but to walk out in Geneva. There was a widespread assumption in the West, encouraged by Washington, that the battle was over. The U.S. and NATO had won. The Soviets now had to accept the new reality of modern American missiles on European territory.

Not so, says a Soviet official with close ties to the military: "Our generals were more determined than ever to get the American missiles out and to keep them out. The general staff concluded that Brezhnev really blew it by provoking the U.S. into installing the Pershing IIs in the first place and then not having the wit to make a deal to get rid of them."

First, however, there had to be a successor who could do something.

Chess and Poker

Shortly before Reagan's second Inauguration, in January 1985, Secretary of State George Shultz met Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Geneva and agreed to get negotiations started again. They settled on a formula for three sets of talks -- INF, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, and a new negotiation on defense and space, focusing on the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. But the Soviets insisted, and Shultz agreed, that the three sets of issues would eventually have to be resolved "in their interrelationship." The Soviets said at the time that this phrase meant hard- and-fast "linkage": there could be no separate deal on INF or START without American concessions on Star Wars. The Americans pressed from the outset for an INF deal that did not require concessions on Star Wars.

At the first session of the talks in March 1985, the chairman of the Soviet delegation, Victor Karpov, a bluff, crusty veteran of SALT, trotted out virtually all Moscow's old demands and added some new ones for good measure. He went out of his way to stress that his plenary statement had been approved "at the highest level" -- by Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become General Secretary one day before.

It was the toughest opening bid that experienced Americans could remember. There were dark jokes about canceling hotel rooms and packing for home. However, the head of the U.S. delegation, Max Kampelman, had just the opposite reaction. He could see that he and his colleagues were in for a long haul, but he did not mind. "We'll be talking for a long time," he told Shultz.

Back in Washington, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency prepared a study showing ten points on which the Soviets had hardened their position from the one they had left on the table when they walked out in late 1983. With much self-righteous fanfare, the Soviets slowly meted out "concessions" that they had already made in the past. Maynard Glitman, the chief American negotiator on INF, told his Soviet counterpart, Alexei Obukhov, "You may take six hours or six days or six weeks or six months to get back to where you were in 1983. We don't care. But you'd better know this: when you get back to those original positions, you get no credit for it with us."

Obukhov subjected Glitman to constant harangues. Once Glitman asked a simple question on an issue of fact and in response got a 65-minute filibuster on the perfidy of U.S. policy and the illegitimacy of the American nuclear presence in Europe. After another testy meeting, one American diplomat cracked, "I think these Russian boys miss their liquor, and they're taking it out on us."

The Soviet negotiators were indeed taking seriously Gorbachev's anti- alcoholism campaign. In the past, working lunches at the Soviet mission had been well lubricated with Stolichnaya vodka and Armenian brandy. No more. Now the Soviets served their guests soda and fruit juice, with only a sip of Georgian wine during the meal. Even the rathskeller in the Soviet mission -- named the Albatross -- began serving orange juice rather than draft beer when Americans were entertained there.

The U.S. had grown used to being the dealer, making imaginative proposals, then sitting back to wait and watch while the Soviets responded in their suspicious, cumbersome manner. Until earlier this year, the American proposals were virtually all minor variations on the interim solution that would leave some missiles on both sides, although the U.S. continued to pay lip service to the "ultimate objective" of zero option.

But before the first round ended in late April, the new General Secretary began to assert himself -- subtly at first, then spectacularly. American experts have often said the U.S. comes to the negotiating table as though arms control were a game of poker while the Soviet Union plays it as chess. Gorbachev showed an ability to combine the tactics of both games in a way that was sometimes masterly, sometimes maddening, sometimes both.

The first hint that the game might be changing came in 1985, when the Soviets tipped their hand on two critical points. One was the status of SS-20s in Soviet Asia. The U.S. had been insisting that the zero option must be "global in scope": it must eliminate SS-20s in Asia too, since they are mobile weapons that in a crisis could be moved to threaten Europe. In May 1985, Gorbachev publicly suggested that his government would be willing to freeze its SS-20 forces east of the Ural Mountains. Shortly afterward the Soviet delegation in Geneva tabled a proposal to that effect. The General Secretary was rapidly becoming his own chief negotiator.

The other key issue was whether, despite earlier Soviet statements to the contrary, INF might be delinked from an agreement on long-range strategic weapons and Star Wars. Glitman took Obukhov aside and tried to persuade him of what he called the "logic" of a separate deal on INF. "Let's assume," he said to Obukhov, "that we were to agree fully with the position you've taken on INF. We could see reaching an agreement without linkage. Couldn't you?" Obukhov paused, thought hard, then replied that he could indeed see such a possibility. A few days later, after checking with his superiors, he told Glitman, "I can tell you that my answer was correct." Once again it was Gorbachev who officially enunciated the new Soviet position. On Oct. 3, during a visit to Paris, he said an INF agreement might be possible "outside of direct connection with the problem of space and strategic arms."

Meanwhile Karpov told U.S. negotiators in Geneva that he was "alarmed at how slow things are going." Kampelman, who relished the chance to out- stonewall a master stonewaller, told Kvitsinsky, who was now serving as one of Karpov's deputies, "Yuli, I don't see why Victor is so alarmed." Kvitsinsky replied, "Well, I'm alarmed that you are not alarmed."

Americans sensed that Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, who had replaced Gromyko as Foreign Minister in July, had decided that INF was the one area where progress might be possible at the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit, which was to be held in Geneva in November. With that event looming, Karpov turned almost plaintive: "We have an opportunity to resolve some important issues in advance of the meeting of our leaders."

Shortly afterward Karpov and Obukhov tabled a new INF proposal that at first blush seemed to capitulate on the most critical issue of all. In what a Soviet official in Moscow later recalled as a "momentous sacrifice that left blood on the floor of more than one ministry," the Kremlin proposed its own version of an "interim agreement": the U.S. could keep a handful of the missiles it had deployed in Europe in exchange for a reduction of Soviet SS-20s in range of Europe and a freeze on those in Asia.

It turned out, however, to be the first in a series of now-you-see-it, now- you-don't Soviet teasers. Moscow's "interim" proposal was the bait for a summit, and it had a number of familiar strings attached. The Soviets had devised a complicated formula that would give them their long-sought compensation for the British and French independent nuclear arsenals that the U.S. insisted should not be part of any INF deal. Also, the U.S. would be allowed to keep only cruise missiles in Europe. The more capable Pershing II ballistic missiles would have to come out. Moreover, the Soviet proposal stipulated that the U.S. would have to commit itself to the eventual elimination of all American missiles in Europe.

At the Geneva summit in November, Reagan refused to yield on the British and French forces and insisted that the U.S. would keep Pershing IIs in West Germany as long as there were SS-20s deployed anywhere in the U.S.S.R. But in their final communique, the two leaders agreed there should be early progress toward an INF interim accord.

After this first summit, Gorbachev was more impatient than ever with the diplomats of both sides who were slogging away in Geneva. He was also emboldened about his ability to compete with the Great Communicator in Washington for the hearts and minds of international public opinion. Said one of his advisers: "The General Secretary decided to take a more active, direct and public role in advancing the process. He resolved to seize the bull by the horns."

He did it in January 1986 with a bold stroke: a proposal for a comprehensive settlement that subsumed all three sets of negotiations. It was a three-stage, 15-year plan for total nuclear disarmament. The first stage called for cancellation of Star Wars, a 50% reduction in strategic weaponry and "complete liquidation" of Soviet and American INF missiles "in the European zone." In Geneva the next day, Karpov opened Round 4 of the nuclear and space talks with a verbatim reading from the eleven-page Gorbachev proposal. It was marked SEKRETNO even though virtually every word had just been distributed worldwide.

Karpov & Co. once again seemed surprised by their leader's tour de force in public diplomacy. When the American negotiators pressed them for clarification, the Soviets' answers were confused and contradictory -- particularly on the critical issue of whether an interim INF deal was contingent on U.S. acceptance of restrictions on Star Wars.

Kvitsinsky told a West German politician that Gorbachev's proposal superseded earlier Soviet willingness, enshrined only two months before in the summit communique, to settle for a separate INF treaty. An interim agreement, said Kvitsinsky, was now "impossible." Linkage was again the order of the day.

But not for long. Two weeks later Kvitsinsky was contradicted by Gorbachev himself. The Soviet leader again showed his penchant for going over everyone's head -- this time directly to influential American liberals. On Feb. 6, during a conversation with visiting Senator Edward Kennedy, the Soviet leader said an interim INF deal, independent of START and SDI, might indeed be possible. Moreover, such an agreement could be signed at a summit in Washington later in the year.

This latest play of the delinkage card brought broad smiles in Washington. The sweet smell of vindication was in the air.

Some Western analysts, however, had growing doubts about whether delinkage and the zero option would necessarily be an unmitigated blessing. A veteran intelligence official cast a pall over an interagency meeting in February by administering what he called a "heavy dose of reality therapy." Consider, he said, the danger posed by a new Soviet ICBM -- the SS-25, a mobile, three- stage, intercontinental version of the two-stage, intermediate-range SS-20. "Not a single one of the SS-20s that Gorbachev will be giving up can hit the U.S., and not a single SS-25 is affected by an INF treaty. So there's nothing to stop him from replacing every SS-20 he takes out of service with an SS-25 that can hit us easily. What's more, SS-25s can cover the same targets in Europe that the SS-20s have been covering. Given an INF agreement but absent a START agreement, we could end up having more Soviet warheads aimed against us than before and our allies could be in no better shape than they are now."

The chief Sovietologist on the staff of the National Security Council, Jack Matlock (who is now U.S. Ambassador to Moscow), favored the zero option but cautioned against euphoria. Gorbachev's latest tactic, he told colleagues, "might be a breakthrough in the negotiations, but it would also achieve & the elimination of American INF missiles in Europe."

As so often happened within the Administration, Gorbachev's offer produced an outbreak of guerrilla warfare. The State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency lined up behind a counterproposal that accepted elimination of INF missiles in Europe but insisted further on a 50% reduction of SS-20s in Asia. The Pentagon, represented in a series of heated meetings by Perle, wanted to hang tough on "global zero" (zero SS-20s in Asia as well as Europe) and also to force Soviet concessions on their "shorter-range" SS-12/ 22 and SS-23 missiles.

Nitze, who had become special adviser to Shultz and Reagan on arms control, had never liked the zero option, but he now did his best to sell it to U.S. allies in Europe. During one of his frequent missions, European leaders told Nitze that they had invested considerable political capital in accepting the American missiles. They had withstood domestic opposition by arguing that the missiles were necessary to assure "coupling" between America's nuclear forces and its defense of NATO. It would be awkward to justify the removal of all the U.S. missiles, even as part of a deal that eliminated the threat of the SS-20s. NATO strategy still required an American nuclear "trip wire" to deter a Soviet conventional attack.

As an aide to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it, "We would have preferred to leave a token deployment of American missiles in Europe. Nitze's own walk-in-the-woods scheme would have been a far better outcome than the zero option from a strategic point of view. If, however, the U.S. allowed itself to be snookered by the Soviets into the damn-fool zero option, then we told Nitze in no uncertain terms that we wanted it to be a version of the zero option that extracted the maximum price from the Kremlin."

Yet the Reagan Administration was reluctant to back away from the zero option, partly because it had been Reagan's proposal to begin with. Glitman instead proposed a modification of the interim solution: an immediate reduction of INF missiles on both sides combined with a schedule for achieving the "global" elimination of INF missiles by the end of 1989. Obukhov replied dryly: "We'll study this more carefully, but on initial consideration, it looks like the zero option."

Meanwhile, there had been a shake-up in the delegation. Kvitsinsky, a specialist on Germany, was transferred to Bonn as Ambassador so he could argue the Soviet case in fluent German against U.S. Envoy Richard Burt. Obukhov moved from INF to START, and his deputy, Lev Masterkov, moved up to be chief INF negotiator. Masterkov had a reputation as an "iron-pants" negotiator of the old school. There was debate among the Americans over whether his appointment meant the Kremlin was indeed ready to move to closure in INF and wanted someone who would get the best possible deal in the final stages, or whether his assignment would be to stall the talks.

The Last 20 Minutes

In September 1986, the Soviets once again began dangling the bait of an INF- only summit. They were, said Karpov, under instructions to take "practical steps" that would assure progress at a "meeting at the highest level." They were prepared to concentrate on the most promising area, which was INF, and, in Karpov's words, to leave START and SDI "off to one side, in hopes of making as much progress as possible on those at the summit itself." They proposed their own version of an interim solution: 100 INF warheads per side in Europe -- although with no Pershing IIs -- and a freeze on Asian SS-20s.

The Reagan Administration, to the relief of some of its own members as well as numerous Europeans, saw an opportunity to retreat from the controversial zero option and to reinstate the interim solution, with token missile deployments in Europe. U.S. negotiators tabled a response that seemed quite close to the Soviet proposal: each superpower could keep 100 INF warheads in Europe, but with some Pershing IIs permitted.

The next day Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, who was in the U.S. for a visit to the U.N., called on President Reagan at the White House and delivered an invitation from Gorbachev to Reagan for a meeting in Reykjavik. An official on the powerful Central Committee Secretariat, Georgi Kornienko, said in Moscow, "We feel it is important to make progress somewhere, and INF appears to be the only area of opportunity." All indications were that the deal the Soviets had in mind was the interim agreement, not the zero option.

But when Reagan arrived in Reykjavik, hoping to put the finishing touches on an INF treaty, he found himself confronted instead with yet another Gorbachev blockbuster. Gone was the offer of an interim INF agreement that would allow the U.S. to maintain some missiles in Europe for a limited period. In its place was the zero option, which would meet the long-standing Soviet objective of keeping all American missiles off the Continent. As before, having originally proposed the zero option, the Administration felt it could not reject it at Reykjavik.

There was an almost audible sigh of relief from NATO capitals when, at the end of the dizzying weekend, the deal fell apart over the old issue of linkage: Gorbachev made an INF deal conditional on a comprehensive strategic agreement that would confine Star Wars to laboratory research. Reagan refused on the grounds that such limitation would "kill" the program.

The Americans had now seen Gorbachev delink and relink INF and SDI so often that they calculated it was only a matter of time before he delinked yet again. Moreover, it was increasingly clear that he was determined to eliminate American missiles in Europe.

As they prepared for the end game of INF, the Soviets upgraded their Geneva team. Karpov was recalled to Moscow and replaced by a Deputy Foreign Minister and former No. 2 Soviet diplomat in Washington, Yuli Vorontsov. Suave, self- assured and experienced in back-channel diplomacy, Vorontsov proposed spending less time in large sessions, which were, he said, "too polemical." Instead, they should concentrate on the individual negotiations, including working lunches for himself and Kampelman.

But, as before, it remained for Gorbachev to make the next move. In February of this year, over a Friday dinner, Vorontsov dropped a hint to Kampelman that he expected new instructions to arrive soon from Moscow. The next day Kampelman was receiving one of the steady stream of congressional delegations that came through Geneva to look in on the talks. Emerging from a long lunch with the visiting legislators at the U.S. mission, Kampelman found a message from Vorontsov. The Soviet diplomat gave Kampelman a copy of a major statement by Gorbachev that would be released later that evening.

As expected, Gorbachev delinked the INF deal once and for all from the issues of SDI and START. In order to achieve the basic Soviet goal of keeping American missiles out of Europe, he was willing to accept a separate INF agreement along the lines of Washington's original zero option.

For its part, the Reagan Administration became resigned to making the best of the zero option and accepting yes for an answer. Despite the qualms of many about entirely eliminating America's nuclear-missile deterrence in Europe, Reagan remained just as attracted as ever to the "elimination of the entire % class of land-based missiles." That bold and simple idea was far more compelling to him than recondite concerns over "coupling" and "extended deterrence," just as it had been when he originally proposed the zero option in 1981.

But there was still much work to be done. "Gromyko used to be fond of saying that the last 20 minutes of a negotiation are the most important," Kampelman told Shultz after Gorbachev's February announcement. "Well, we're entering the last 20 minutes." They lasted nine months.

Kampelman's toughest job was persuading the Soviets to accept a global zero-zero plan: no SS-20s or shorter-range INF missiles anywhere in the U.S.S.R. He explained how such a treaty would help eventually with the politics of ratification in the U.S. Senate. "A big concern of the Senators," said Kampelman, "will be verification. It will be far easier to verify a treaty that achieves a global zero outcome than one that leaves some missiles in Europe or Asia. What we're now talking about would be clean, crisp and far more verifiable than the interim agreement." To underscore the political obstacles that Reagan could face at home, Kampelman showed Vorontsov a newspaper article by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that was highly critical of the prospective treaty.

During a Shultz visit to Moscow in April, Gorbachev made an important concession: shorter-range INF missiles would indeed be eliminated throughout the U.S.S.R. As usual the Soviet team in Geneva was slow to catch up with its home office. Vorontsov at first said that his government was prepared to "zero-out" shorter-range missiles only in Europe. It took some weeks for him to bring his delegation's position into line with what Gorbachev had already told Shultz in Moscow.

The treaty that Reagan and Gorbachev are to sign this week cannot exist in a vacuum for very long. While the U.S. has succeeded in separating INF from the bigger issues of START and SDI, the success could prove temporary and illusory. What the experts, Soviet and American alike, call "conceptual" linkage remains a fact of life. Unless the SS-25 and other ICBMs are dealt with in a strategic agreement sometime soon, they will eventually nullify the good news being celebrated this week in Washington and around the world.

That is why, after spending their holidays at home, Kampelman and Vorontsov are scheduled to meet again in January.

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CREDIT:ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY ISADORE SELTZER

CAPTION:THE DEAL

DESCRIPTION: Color illustration: Weapons and numbers of weapons to be removed by U.S.and USSR respectively. Two hands removing missiles from Eastern and Western Europe.