Push for arms treaty stalled by alleged Soviet violations of earlier pact

February 06, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A renewed push to complete a major treaty on long-range nuclear weapons by the end of this month is clouded by alleged Soviet violations of last year's pact on conventional forces in Europe, a U.S. official familiar with the talks said yesterday.

The United States is sending Undersecretary of State Reginald Bartholomew to Geneva tomorrow in a late effort to resolve the mostly technical issues blocking a treaty, which has been negotiated for eight years.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III said last week that the two countries had "agreed . . . that we would continue to try and conclude the strategic arms treaty, if possible, during the month of February."

But U.S. officials are approaching the endgame wrestling over details in a new atmosphere of skepticism about Soviet willingness to cooperate.

This was triggered by problems that have arisen in Soviet compliance with the landmark treaty cutting conventional forces in Europe, or CFE -- problems Americans saw as the Soviets' "thumbing their noses" at the unratified agreement.

The most serious of these is a shift of three Soviet rifle divisions and their equipment to coastal defense in what the West sees as an attempt to circumvent treaty limits.

The United States has rejected the Soviets' offer not to expand the units and insists that the violation be corrected. But "the Soviets are sticking to their guns," a U.S. official said.

Other problems are the Soviet movement of forces to beyond the Urals before the treaty was signed and a wide discrepancy between Soviet and Western counts of the number of forces in the treaty zone.

U.S. officials warn that until these problems are resolved, the CFE treaty won't be sent to the Senate for ratification.

Mr. Baker said last week that there was no direct link between the problems plaguing the two agreements.

But an official familiar with the talks said yesterday, "I would say that, in terms of our perceptions of Soviet cooperation, their behavior on CFE has an impact on what we're trying to do in other negotiations."

The difficulties with the strategic arms reduction treaty, or START, were one reason cited last week for delaying next week's Moscow summit until later in the first half of this year.

Spurgeon Keeny, president of the Arms Control Association, expressed fears that the treaty could become a casualty of delay, citing past examples of treaties derailed at the end.

The months between now and the anticipated summit represent "a long time in the current world," he warned.

Soviet tactics on the CFE reflect what analysts see as increased clout on the part of the Soviet military, on whom President Mikhail S. Gorbachev appears to be increasingly relying to solve domestic problems.

Problems now holding up the START agreement are "third-level issues that can be handled at the subministerial level," said Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.

But a U.S. official responded, "They're technical in nature, but they're not trivial."

Arms control advocates say current disarray in the Soviet Union is good reason to lock in arms deals.

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