Should the British and French missiles be Europe's, too?
Kremlin leader Yuri Andropov's offer to reduce Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Europe to equal British and French nuclear forces has been formally presented at the Geneva arms control negotiations, Western NATO forces disclosed here.
The offer was first made public in Mr. Andropov's December speech marking the 60th anniversary of the Soviet state in an attempt to have the West abandon scheduled deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles later this year.
Although officially rejected by the United States and its alliance partners, the offer nevertheless was to have been discussed at a special NATO nuclear policy meeting Sunday and Monday. The meeting was chaired by Richard Burt, the US Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, and attended by senior officials from NATO governments who have been monitoring the negotiations and allied nuclear policy.
The NATO governments are expected to again turn down the offer this week while underlining their willingness to continue discussing such proposals, which have generated considerable interest and controversy in the West.
The sources at NATO headquarters could give only sketchy details of the Soviet proposal. The bid formalized Andropov's offer to reduce Soviet intermediate-range missiles in the European part of the country by about half to the 162 held by Britain and France. This would be in return for a halt to the planned NATO deployment of 572 cruise and Pershing missiles. These same sources also said that the offer would freeze the number of missiles in the Asian part of the Soviet Union. The current Asian level is said to be about 100.
At the time, the Soviet proposal aroused skepticism because of Western concern that missiles in Asia could still strike targets in other countries on NATO flanks, such as Norway and Turkey. It was also pointed out that Soviet SS- 20 missiles were mobile and might easily be brought back from their Asian bases to a point where they would once again pose a threat to Western Europe.
More recently, there also has been growing concern about the threat the Asian-based missiles would pose to Japan and China. Vice-President George Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz have both addressed themselves to this subject during their recent swings through Europe and Asia, respectively.
President Reagan and the US State Department reacted almost immediately to the Andropov speech on Dec. 21 as a result of American press reports outlining a previous version of the offer presented at the Geneva talks late last year.
President Reagan during a press briefing said the offer ''isn't adequate and it would still leave us at a considerable disadvantage.'' A State Department statement also said the proposed Soviet reduction, coupled with the cancellation of NATO's deployment would ''entail a Soviet monopoly on long-range, intermediate weapons.'' It added that it would ''codify and legitimize'' inequality of forces represented by the new Soviet SS-20s and was therefore ''without merit.''
The French and British governments, along with other allied countries, also rejected the Soviet contention that their independent national nuclear arms were equal to the sophisticated SS-20 or that they should be considered in purely bilateral US-Soviet intermediate-range negotiations. The Soviet Union has long sought unsuccessfully to bring the Franco-British nuclear arsenals into various arms control negotiations.
President Fracois Mitterrand and other French leaders were especially vehement in rejecting the Andropov proposal. Mitterrand characterized it in a January speech to the West German Bundestag as an attempt at ''decoupling of the European continent and the American continent'' that ''would put into question the maintenance of equilibrium and thus the maintenance of peace.''
Yet the proposals have found some limited support in Europe as a step toward Soviet concessions and serious negotiations. They had been repeated by Soviet leaders in meetings with a delegation of American members of Congress in Moscow and West German Socialist opposition leader Hans-Jochen Vogel in his visit to the Kremlin. Vogel and others have said that the British and French forces might be taken into consideration during the Geneva talks.