The Kremlin's handling of its latest antisatellite (ASAT) negotiating offer casts doubts on Soviet motives. Viewed from Washington, it suggests the Soviets are looking for a free ride in arms control at US expense.
Since the offer was first announced in June, the Kremlin showed itself uninterested in serious talks. The very day after offering to negotiate, the Soviets dismissed as ''totally unsatisfactory'' an American acceptance. The indications are that they expected and would have preferred a US rejection. They hoped to advance their claim for the high ground in a propaganda battle with the United States. One did not need the Soviets' most recent refusal to see through their tactics.
Moscow's maneuver also suggests a grave misreading of the American political process. It is a mistake for the Soviets to see this country's debate over US arms control policy as indicating self-doubt which can easily be exploited by Moscow. In contrast to the Soviet Union, where dissent is equated with weakness, argument in the US is a vital element of our political fiber.
Among members of Congress who urge compromise and flexibility in negotiations , there is no delusion about the nature of the Soviet state. We back arms control not because of a benign view of Soviet intentions, but because of a belief that serious differences in US and Soviet goals require that competition be regulated to avert disaster. Were the Soviet Union a friendly power, arms control would not be necessary. We do not need treaties with nations like Britain.
Those who have urged that space talks begin have done so in the belief that a space arms race poses serious long-term risks to US security interests and not out of fear of Soviet space programs. If arms control helped to avoid the dangers, it would be a better alternative. But what is needed is a serious agreement, not just a signed piece of paper.
When the US initiated its ASAT program, it did so to lure the Soviets into negotiations. The goal was dismantlement of the Soviet ASAT in exchange for a halt to the US development effort. Space talks were conducted in 1978-79. Unfortunately, all other arms control talks were suspended after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
After Ronald Reagan entered office, most talks resumed, but ASATs were excluded. While some Washington officials argued that prospects for an accord were slim, others noted Soviet eagerness for ASAT discussions and believed that progress in developing our ASAT provided bargaining leverage.