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The bear retracts its claws

THE Soviet Union has sent intriguing signals within the last two weeks regarding its military stance with the West. Consider: The Soviets offered to dismantle equipment at a radar site near Krasnoyarsk that allegedly violates the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, if the United States abides by the treaty ``as signed in 1972'' for another 10 years. By removing preconditions that the US drop plans to upgrade radars in Greenland and Britain, the Soviets have moved closer to a compromise that could ultimately deprive US hard-liners of one of their favorite examples of Soviet duplicity in arms control.

At the end of a US tour, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of the Soviet armed forces, acknowledged that the Soviet Navy has scaled back the size and scope of its maneuvers. He said the change is part of his country's new defensive-oriented military doctrine.

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Amid official denials and caveats, tantalizing hints have come from the East bloc about the possibility that the Soviets may remove some troops from Hungary.

These are threads in a larger tapestry of Soviet security strategy. In response, that strategy calls for support of Western arms reduction efforts that show a deeper appreciation for the link between conventional and nuclear weapons - and a clearer vision of what NATO wants Europe to look like after treaties are signed.

SINCE the early 1970s, the Soviets have tried to foreclose the US option of using nuclear weapons first in a war, especially in Western Europe. They invested heavily in their nuclear deterrent and signed nuclear arms control agreements with the US. The first-use threat was intended to deter numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces from invading Western Europe.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty - while breaking ground in actually reducing nuclear weapons and in verification methods - has also moved the Soviets a step closer to their goal. So would an agreement eliminating tactical nuclear weapons. With the INF Treaty in place, elements of the US strategic force will have to pick up targets once covered by intermediate-range weapons if the US is to keep its nuclear umbrella over Western Europe. To the extent that using US strategic forces to deter a NATO-Warsaw Pact war was ever credible, that option becomes even less so when those forces are reduced by half, the goal of the current Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.

The Soviets' position on the Krasnoyarsk radar - especially regarding the ABM Treaty - is their latest attempt to remove a longstanding impediment to reductions in strategic weapons.

As these holes grow in the US nuclear umbrella, the Warsaw Pact remains the dominant military force in Europe.

That is an attractive position for the Soviet military, but it presents Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with a dilemma. To improve the Soviet economy, he needs to reduce military spending, to ensure a period of relative calm abroad, and to cultivate closer economic ties with Western Europe. Reducing Warsaw Pact troops in Eastern Europe would serve these goals. But he must also ensure his country's security - both as a function of his role as national leader and to keep from undercutting support for his broader reform program.

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Those are powerful incentives for him to strive for a conventional-arms agreement that reduces Warsaw Pact forces just enough to calm concerns in Europe without undercutting the pact's offensive capability. This capability is crucial to them, because Soviet military doctrine until now has held that the most effective defense is to attack preemptively and decisively when it appears that war is the only option left in a crisis.

Serious negotiations on conventional forces will await a new US president. But serious contention for public opinion in Europe and the US has not waited. Hence the Soviets are pointing to reduced naval maneuvers, to a new defensive doctrine, and to new flexibility on Krasnoyarsk. Meanwhile, the Warsaw Pact is expressing a willingness to reduce more forces than NATO in categories where the pact displays numerical superiority and which appear most threatening to NATO.

The Soviets know that by pushing the right buttons, they can try to focus public pressure on Western leaders in the hope of getting concessions they might not otherwise get. That puts an onus on NATO leaders to negotiate with a clear vision of what they want a post-treaty Europe to look like. This vision gives them a basis for taking the initiative in offering arms reduction proposals, rather than responding to Soviet initiatives. It also gives them a solid footing from which to resist pressure to sign an agreement that could ultimately undercut Western security.

PEOPLE living in the West have a role, too: They must remain open-minded but also open-eyed about Soviet proposals. Changes in Soviet military doctrine take four or five years to show up at the level of troops, tanks, and planes. It is clearly too early to be swept up by pronouncements of a ``new'' Soviet doctrine whose key term - defensive - the East and West define differently.

Given the historical link in Western strategy between nuclear and conventional forces - a link the Soviets clearly recognize - the order and pace of their reduction requires careful calibration to maintain the West's security while easing the potential for armed conflict.

That goal might be better served by completing conventional arms talks before those covering strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Many confidence-building measures adopted by the US and Soviets deal with conventional-level activities - for example, pacts on notification of maneuvers or incidents at sea. Nuclear arms talks should continue; they remain the most high-profile evidence of concern about the East-West arms race. But the deeper concern lies in the potential for conventional conflict in Europe, which could escalate. If this is the case, the Western public should ask that priority go to conventional-arms reductions.

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