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No Camelot in Muscovy

WITHIN a month after President Reagan's suggestion in 1983 that the United States conduct research on a Strategic Defense Initiative, several Soviet scientists published a letter in the New York Times which denounced the program. Among the signatories were Y. P. Velikhov, N. G. Basov, A. M. Prokhorov, and Mr. Avduyevsky.

According to Paul H. Nitze, the White House's top adviser on arms control, they were hardly disinterested parties. Mr. Velikhov, deputy director of the Kurchatov Atomic Energy Institute, is a central figure in Soviet laser and particle-beam weapon efforts. Mr. Basov and Mr. Prokhorov are both scientific advisers to laser weapons programs. Mr. Avduyevsky is responsible for a number of projects researching the military use of space, including a space-based laser weapon.

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In other words, according to Mr. Nitze, some of the same people trying to forestall American research on strategic defense are busily engaged in a Soviet program on strategic defense that has been going on for 20 years.

Nitze argues that since the mid-1960s the Soviets have been working on a high-energy laser program that is much larger than the United States effort. More than 10,000 Soviet scientists and engineers are associated with the development of lasers for weapons.

Since the 1970s the Soviets have been exploring the technical feasibility of a particle-beam weapon in space.

For decades the Soviets have conducted research on sources of high-power radio frequency signals and the antennas that would be required to direct and focus the signals on distant targets.

And, says Nitze, the Soviets have a variety of longstanding research programs under way in the area of kinetic-energy weapons.

All this, Nitze asserts, is proof that the Soviets have been researching for years the same technologies the US now proposes to pursue.

Why, then, the intensity of the Soviet campaign against President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative? Is it that the Soviets genuinely fear an American breakthrough in this area?

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Although the research would not tell us until years after Ronald Reagan had left the presidency whether the program is practicable, the concept is of a defensive shield in space that would thwart incoming Soviet missiles. The Soviets argue that, armed with such a shield against Soviet retaliation, the United States might be encouraged to strike offensively at the Soviet Union.

Or is it that the Soviets want to hobble American research, because they want to be the only ones pressing forward in this field?

During his recent visit to Paris, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev cloaked his toughness and firmness of purpose with a lot of charm and geniality. An impressive Soviet public relations campaign gave him dominance of the world's press for most of a week.

But Camelot has not yet come to Muscovy.

The Soviet campaign was, and is, a single-minded one to wrest concessions from the United States in the area of arms control. There is no hint of the reform at home or in foreign policy that would make the Soviet Union a more agreeable world power.

Raise the fate of Andrei Sakharov, and Mikhail Gorbachev won't talk. Mention political prisoners in the Soviet Union, and Mr. Gorbachev's eyes become flinty. There are no smiles when Western correspondents want to discuss the Soviet pillage in Afghanistan, Soviet meddling in Central America, harassment of American officers in East Germany, or Soviet espionage in the United States and Western Europe.

The fact is that after a series of ailing leaders, the Soviet Union now has an effective chief with whom the United States can talk.

Mikhail Gorbachev has made a proposal for arms reduction which, though self-serving to the Soviet Union, may be an initial bargaining position that could lead to serious dialogue.

All this is to the good.

But as the United States sits down to bargain with the Soviet Union, we should not delude ourselves that there has been any evidence so far of a change in the long history of Soviet disingenuousness, or in Soviet objectives, or in Soviet attitudes.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.