Up in the Air After Moscow's Gambit

The Administration does summit somersaults

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For a month Ronald Reagan had been playing something of an unaccustomed role: the overanxious suitor. At nearly every opportunity, he betrayed his eagerness to meet with his Soviet counterpart. Two days after Mikhail Gorbachev was named Soviet Communist Party leader, Reagan invited him to a tete-a-tete in the U.S. The President's desire did not diminish even after a Soviet guard shot and killed a U.S. officer in East Germany. Said Reagan in a Washington Post interview following the shooting: "I want a meeting even more so, to sit down and look someone in the eye . . . to make sure nothing of this kind happens again."

His attitude dismayed much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, moderates as well as hard-liners. Declared former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: "This posture is disadvantageous and in bad taste. It is undesirable for us to be pleading for a summit with them." Privately, some of Reagan's senior advisers agreed. They suspected that Gorbachev's coyness about setting a firm date for a summit was a sign that he was setting up a snare instead.

On the symbolic day of Easter Sunday, Gorbachev made his move. In an interview with Pravda, he announced a freeze on Soviet deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe until November and invited the U.S. to do the same. He also proposed a freeze on strategic offensive arms and a moratorium on the development of space weapons while arms negotiations are under way in Geneva. Almost as an aside, he mentioned that both powers had expressed "a positive attitude" toward a summit. "Confrontation," Gorbachev said, "is not an inborn defect of our relations."

In one stroke, Gorbachev had taken the arms talks public and implied that a summit was linked to progress in Geneva. The warm words from Washington, it seemed, had only brought another Soviet negotiating gambit. Gorbachev had timed the announcement for maximum effect. It coincided with antinuclear demonstrations in Europe and came on the eve of a visit by a U.S. congressional delegation. It came, as well, just two days before the arrival of the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, the one NATO country still deciding whether to install U.S. missiles. If the Dutch proceed, deployment would begin Nov. 1; Gorbachev's unilateral moratorium on SS-20 missiles, naturally enough, is in effect until November.

The Administration reacted with annoyance. Snapped White House Spokesman Larry Speakes: "At first blush, the proposal for a moratorium seems to revive prior Soviet efforts designed to freeze in place a considerable Soviet advantage." The Soviets have deployed some 414 triple-warhead medium-range SS-20 missiles, two-thirds of which are aimed at Europe, while NATO has installed only 104 of the 572 single-warhead cruise and Pershing II missiles that it hopes to put in by 1988. Paul Nitze, Reagan's special adviser on arms control, said Moscow's new proposal was worse from the American standpoint than the final Soviet position before the breakoff of the Geneva talks in November 1983. Back then, the U.S.S.R. would have kept only 120 SS-20s in Europe, while the U.S. would have deployed no new missiles. U.S. officials further derided Gorbachev's initiative because the Soviets have developed a successor to the SS-20, making the old missile expendable. Said one Administration aide: "They're just offering to stop what they were going to stop anyway."

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