The Kremlin has been issuing vague threats this past month about how it might react to NATO's proposed deployment of new nuclear missiles in West Europe. It is now known, more specifically, that Hungarian officials have hinted to Westerners that the Soviets may move some nuclear-armed SS-22 missiles into Hungary. At present none of the SS-22s are deployed outside the Soviet Union.
In Soviet eyes, such a move would be a response to the planned deployment of NATO's new cruise and Pershing II missiles due to begin in December. The NATO governments, however, view their own missile deployments as a response to the six-year-old buildup within the Soviet Union of SS-20s.
(In Moscow, Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov warned the West Monday that Moscow would respond without delay to the deployment of new American missiles in Europe by boosting its own military arsenal, Reuter reports. ''We and our allies will respond by taking without delay additional measures to strengthen our security and develop a counterbalance to NATO's new military potential,'' he said.)
The SS-20s have a range of about 3,100 miles. The SS-22s have a shorter range - about 620 miles. But even the SS-22s, if deployed in Hungary, would be able to reach all of Italy (including new cruise missile sites in Sicily), West Germany, France, Denmark, southern Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, southeast Britain, central Turkey, and all of Greece.
Such implicit threats from the Kremlin were stepped up prior to the first official visit to Moscow July 4 to 8 by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
This was probably no coincidence. West Germany will be the only NATO nation installing the Pershing IIs, which can reach the Soviet Union in about 12 minutes. It is also the key country in Soviet efforts to block the NATO deployment, since the antinuclear movement has the greatest political strength there.
It is not yet clear, however, if the Soviets wish to escalate the nuclear-arms race in such a dramatic fashion as moving SS-22s into Hungary. A less confrontational alternative might be to continue the ongoing Soviet short-range nuclear modernization in eastern Europe and to portray this rhetorically as a response to NATO deployments.
So far, the latter course has been the Soviet choice. According to West German and American defense sources, the Soviet Union quietly began stationing the 350-kilometer-range SS-23 in East Germany last year. Then, as the conservative victory in West Germany's March election made it clear that planned NATO deployments would proceed on schedule, Moscow began hinting this year that the new East German deployments were in retaliation for the NATO deployments.
According to some West German and American sources, nuclear warheads for the new Soviet SS-23s have been deployed in East Germany along with the launchers. Evidence of the presence of warheads is more ambiguous and controversial than evidence about missiles, however, and is in any case very closely held in the intelligence community.
Besides the options of modernizing existing Soviet nuclear weapons in East Europe and moving some SS-22s forward into East Europe, Moscow has two other basic options in responding to NATO deployments.
The first would be continued deployment of the SS-20s that first triggered the NATO program. This stationing is in fact going ahead, with new SS-20s being deployed in sites east of the 80-degree line, designated in the Geneva arms control talks, which divides SS-20s supposedly aimed at Europe from those targeted on Asia. One particular variant of this option might be to station SS- 20s in new sites in the east sufficiently far north so as to target Alaska and Washington state.
The remaining option would be to step up SS-22 deployments in the western districts of the Soviet Union - but not move them into Eastern Europe. This could be done either by accelerating production and deployment, or by leaving operational the older 900-kilometer-range SS-12s that the SS-22 is designed to replace. There are currently 84 SS-12s in the Soviet western military districts capable of targeting the eastern part of West Germany.
Any deployment of SS-22s in Eastern Europe would set a Soviet precedent. These missiles are assigned at present to the elite Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, while shorter-range missiles are assigned to the less elite land forces of the Army. Presumably stationing SS-23s in Eastern Europe would entail transferring responsibility for them to the land forces, since the Strategic Rocket Forces have no organization in Eastern Europe.