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.
Until two years ago, the administration had some justification for its reservations. The Soviets' longstanding ASAT proposal called for banning weapons in space. But it contained a huge loophole: Moscow's ground-based ASAT would have been unaffected.
In the spring of 1983, the first signs of a shift in Moscow became evident. Soviet officials began privately to acknowledge the existence of a Soviet satellite killer. Earlier, Moscow had insisted that the US space program was the problem, even though we had no ASAT.
Last August, Soviet President Yuri Andropov presented US senators with a new arms control formulation providing for the destruction of the Soviet ASAT. Verification remained a sticking point until mid-June, when the new President, Konstantin Chernenko, indicated willingness to accept intrusive verification measures.
Also in mid-June, the US Senate debated ASAT arms control. It adopted an amendment tying US ASAT tests to arms control efforts, thereby reaffirming the rationale of the 1977 US ASAT development decision.
President Reagan accepted this formulation, setting the stage for a US acceptance of the Soviet offer. At least, that is the way it looked here. But it seems the Kremlin hoped that a Soviet offer would yield a US rejection and a cheap propaganda victory.
When Mr. Chernenko reaffirmed the Soviet interest in ASAT talks, he asserted that the Soviet Union expected deeds rather than words from the US. Yet, Soviet efforts to impugn the US acceptance are pure subterfuge.
American officials indicated that while the US expected to raise nuclear weapons issues in Vienna, it was not the US intention to block ASAT talks if agreement on other systems could not be reached. There was little reason for Moscow to claim bad communications. Bad faith may be the source of the problem.
Even if talks on missiles is a condition, what is so bad about that? The Soviet Union must not be allowed to avoid bargaining on the gravest threat to mankind.
We can move beyond this episode if Moscow begins to focus on strategic problem-solving rather than public posturing. If talks are held after all and fail for lack of Soviet sincerity, Moscow should have no doubts that the American people will make the sacrifice required to meet the Soviet military challenge.