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Soviets talk tough on missile talks, but hint at flexibility

Moscow is hoping for, and expecting, a new United States proposal on limiting European nuclear missiles - despite sharp Soviet criticism of the kind of ''interim'' solution it is likely to involve.

Soviet officials, publicly and privately, are so far sticking to the Kremlin's current negotiating stand, much as President Reagan has been holding to his.

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Moscow says even partial implementation of plans to base new US missiles in Europe - a reply, NATO says, to Soviet weapons already in place - would present a ''new threat'' to Moscow.

An interim proposal would involve a partial cutback in the Soviets' medium-range nuclear missile force - particularly in the Kremlin's several hundred, triple-warhead SS-20s - in return for NATO's deploying only some of the 572 new US rockets earmarked for Western Europe starting late this year.

Moscow also sticks by its insistence, formalized by party leader Yuri Andropov in December, that non-NATO missile forces in Britain and France be ''taken into account'' in any accord.

But several senior officials interviewed recently suggest strongly that Moscow will look seriously at any interim proposal from the US and reply with updated Kremlin ideas. The current Soviet stand, they say, is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

A prominent official adds that with the US evidently set on deploying the new missiles, time for a compromise accord is running short.

Meanwhile the Soviets appear confident that, despite the recent conservative electoral victory in West Germany, pressure from that and other NATO states will ensure a Reagan administration departure from its initial negotiating stand.

Asked after the German election to predict its probable effect on the arms talks, a ranking official said it might well ''lead to the fact that Reagan will stick to his so-called 'zero option' for some time longer'' than otherwise.

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But the official added that, the election aside, it was clear ''Western Europe wants him to depart from that position.''

In a separate interview at the end of last year, he said once Washington came up with a new proposal, ''we shall say (propose) something further.''

On the substance of an interim accord, Moscow has meanwhile aired sharp criticism.

Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, addressing the issue in Pravda in the run-up to the German election, did not reject the idea outright.

He said in effect that news media reports on a possible interim proposal from Washington were so far the only reports, and that Washington still seemed guided by the aim of achieving ''military advantages'' in Europe.

Moscow's most prominent White House watcher, Georgi Arbatov, took a somewhat harder line in a Pravda article March 17. He said Moscow would never ''bless'' at the arms table a proposal whereby even a portion of the planned new US missiles would get deployed.

He also echoed a 1982 warning by then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that deployment of new US missiles would trigger a Kremlin move to place US territory under ''analogous'' pressure. Moscow sources suggest the reference is to Soviet development of a radar-elusive cruise missile similar to the US missile, and that such weapons would be sited at sea within range of US shores.

Another senior official, speaking to the Monitor, rejected Western media suggestions that Moscow would be happy with an interim accord that nixed plans to deploy fast-flying Pershing II rockets - as opposed to the slower, if foxier, cruise missiles that are to make up most of the new NATO force.

He said cruise weapons are extremely dangerous because they are so hard to keep track of - and that second-generation cruise missiles would be ''even more dangerous.''

This and other officials decline to say what kind of amended ideas Moscow might offer in reply to a US departure from Mr. Reagan's current ''zero option'' at the Geneva talks.

The zero option would require dismantling of all Soviet medium-range missiles capable of hitting Western Europe, in trade for full shelving of the new US deployment there.

Moscow argues this would leave Moscow with no balance for the 162 missiles of Britain and France.

Officials interviewed say only that the current Soviet stand - that Moscow keep 162 SS-20s - should not be seen as a final word.

They add that Moscow's only nonnegotiable insistence is that any Geneva accord somehow ''take account of the existence of these [French and British] forces'' - the implication being this would not necessarily mean a one-for-one balance in triple-warhead SS-20s.

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