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Brezhnev's riposte

Nine months ago Leonid Brezhnev called for a ''moratorium'' on deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe, including the European part of the USSR. The West greeted the offer with due skepticism. Now Ronald Reagan has called for a reduction in the level of nuclear weapons in Europe. And TASS, the Soviet news agency, terms his proposals a propaganda ploy that ''cannot lead to any positive results.''

Are the Soviet Union and the United States merely engaging in rhetorical flourishes? That would be too cynical a view. More likely they are fencing, staking out their positions publicly as often happens in advance of any negotiation. The Russians knew the Reagan proposals were coming and were ready with a quick response - one fired off, no doubt, with Mr. Brezhnev's imminent visit to Bonn in mind.

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But, as we have felt all along, it was only a matter of time before realities drove the superpowers back to the negotiating table. Mr. Brezhnev made a patently unacceptable opening bid. Mr. Reagan's position is similarly hard in Soviet eyes. The bargaining may well be long and arduous. It is not even agreed what weapons systems should be covered in the talks. But the important thing is that talks there will be - and both sides have reasons to want them to succeed. The Russians face grave economic problems, aggravated by their heavy defense commitments. The Americans have a goodly share of their own economic difficulties, and also confront the danger of division within the NATO alliance.

In this connection it bears reminding how differently things might have looked today if wiser policies had been pursued in Washington. The peace movement in Western Europe would probably never have gotten off the ground or gotten up such a head of steam if the US Congress had ratified the SALT II treaty. Problems might still have arisen over the theater nuclear weapons in Europe, but these could more easily have been addressed with SALT III negotiations underway.

That is all water over the dam, of course. The hope now is that the lessons of the past will be remembered as US and Soviet negotiators once again resume the quest for a way out of the irrational nuclear arms race. The preliminary swordplay, meanwhile, should not be allowed to overshadow the substance of serious intentions.

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