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Gorbachev's timing

ANNOUNCING a seven-month freeze on Soviet midrange missiles in Europe is Mikhail Gorbachev's second opening move in his superpower chess game on arms with the Reagan administration, the first being the Kremlin carping over the American Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars'' program. The unilateral Soviet moratorium on European missiles should come as no surprise. The Soviets have largely completed the deployment phase they are ostensibly ``freezing.'' The Reagan response, declining to declare a moratorium on the Pershing II and cruise missile deployments now under way, was correct.

Mr. Gorbachev's sense of timing, however, is itself interesting. Forget for a moment that House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. was arriving in Moscow with a congressional delegation when the Gorbachev interview appeared in Pravda. Forget too that the Soviets have been expected, all along, to attempt to drive a wedge in NATO ranks with their arms talks maneuvers. The Dutch government is the last NATO member to have yet to make its final commitment on cruise missile deployments. That decision is expected in November. Gorbachev's moratorium would expire in November. If the purpose of the Soviet freeze is to sow discord, it cannot for this very reason be allowed to govern the Dutch decision.

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Gorbachev's timing is interesting because it conflicts directly with the Reagan administration's concept of timing for the Geneva negotiations. Gorbachev appears to be in a hurry, to want some sign of progress that he can take to the first party congress under his rule, which could occur from November on. He does not appear to want the talks to drag on. The Reagan administration has wanted principally to get the talks started, cautioning that it may be a long time before something, if anything, comes of them.

The Reagan team might well be annoyed that Gorbachev has resumed public diplomacy on arms the way Yuri Andropov used it. But it can hardly have been surprised. Gorbachev, notably, dealt principally with the midrange European missiles, as if suggesting they offered some reciprocal deal separate from the two other arms categories under discussion at Geneva, on long-range missiles and defensive weapons. Possibly Mr. Gorbachev was not satisfied with what he had been hearing from the American side at Geneva.

The Soviet moratorium is a sign of greater maneuverability in foreign relations generally. Gorbachev has already given signs that he is in a hurry. He seems to be saying that of course US-Soviet relations are important, but that isn't all there is on the Soviet plate: The Soviets have other international interests to tend as well, as signaled by a speeded-up reevaluation of Kremlin relations with Europe, Japan, and China.

From Washington's perspective, there is no hurry. Certainly the administration does not want to feel rushed by time. Any point before President Reagan leaves office, if any agreement can be reached, would be early enough. Then it would be up to Mr. Reagan's successors to take over in dealing with Gorbachev. The first White House goal, now that negotiations have resumed in Geneva, is a summit meeting.

Gorbachev, however, is both on a honeymoon and on trial. To secure his position, the long run may be less important to him than some early successes. The entire Soviet strategy is hardly discernible from its opening moves.

But if Mr. Gorbachev is indeed signaling that he may cut off talks if progress is not made by November, at the least the Reagan administration might want to respond constructively by moving earlier with its negotiating positions.

Given all the other differences between the superpowers, a misunderstanding over conflicting timetables is hardly needed.