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West on Warsaw Pact offer of military cuts: it's worth exploring

The judgment is not in yet on whether the latest Warsaw Pact proposal helps or hinders East-West agreement on cuts in conventional arms -- and Western attempts to reduce the Soviet bloc's conventional superiority in Central Europe. The initial Western reading suggests that there are enough interesting features in the offer to make it worth exploring. But the expansion of the geographical area and the number of nations and weapons involved relative to current talks greatly complicates the finding of common ground and suggests long, drawn-out negotiations. Hope that the proposal could stimulate some progress rests on:

The unaccustomed Soviet willingness to include some Soviet territory in conventional reductions in an area defined as Europe ``from the Atlantic to the Urals.'' West German spokesmen in particular have welcomed this aspect and have pointed out that five years ago Moscow would have rejected such a category.

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The fact that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's announced offer of substantial mutual cuts in conventional forces at the East German Communist Party congress in April has finally been fleshed out a bit.

At the same time, Western scepticism rests on:

The ambitious Soviet enlargement of the area, manpower, and materiel to be restricted in conventional arms control in Europe at a time when a narrower agreement in Central Europe had finally begun to seem within reach. In particular, Warsaw Pact inclusion of tactical air forces and nuclear weapons with a range of under 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) in its conventional package complicates negotiations. And the new Warsaw Pact goal of troop reductions of 100,000 to 150,000 by each side over the next two years and cuts of 500,000 each by the early 1990s go far beyond current negotiations about first-phase cuts of 11,500 by the Warsaw Pact and half that by NATO.

The absence of any Warsaw Pact acceptance of verification by detailed exchange of information or assured on-site inspection. The West says veto-free on-site inspections -- it wants 30 a year -- and personnel counts down to battalion level are necessary for proper verification of total numbers.

``The question is, how can we reach such an ambitious goal -- the numbers are larger, the area is larger, the participants are increased -- when we haven't been able to reach agreement in Vienna on a much more limited basis and when we are much closer than ever before?'' asked one Western envoy familiar with the current Vienna talks.

``So the question is, and I raise it only as a question: Is this a Soviet effort to divert attention from the situation here in which they have not yet adequately responded to the compromises of last December?''

He noted that Warsaw Pact intentions were not elucidated in yesterday's regular plenary session of the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks in Vienna. Only the Bulgarian delegation referred -- in passing -- to the offer made in Wednesday's communiqu'e after the Budapest summit of Warsaw Pact leaders.

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NATO will study the Warsaw Pact proposal and formulate a response to it through the ``task force'' set up at this month's foreign ministers meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It will do so against the backdrop of MBFR negotiations that opened with great optimism as d'etente began in the early 1970s -- but then dragged on inconclusively for 13 years.

Some rapprochement occurred last December, when the US acceded to the urging of its European allies and stopped insisting that agreement on data about current troop strengths (the West says the Warsaw Pact has 1,160,000 troops in Central Europe -- 180,000 more than it admits) must precede any cuts. This concession came in response to earlier Soviet indications that it would accept on-site verification of troop reductions. The West's hope was that adequate verification of subsequent cuts would make initial agreement on numbers unnecessary.

The Soviet-bloc response to the West's move was disappointing, however. In February, the Warsaw Pact submitted a new draft treaty at the talks which not only provided for a veto on spot on-site inspections, but also retracted earlier Soviet willingness to have all troops entering or leaving Central Europe pass through two or three permanent checkpoints at which officers of the rival military bloc would be stationed.