On the eve of high-level talks with the Soviet Union, the Reagan Administration on Wednesday ordered 25 members of the Soviet Mission at the United Nations--including some suspected spies--to leave the country as part of a crackdown against Kremlin espionage.
At the same time, mixing conciliation with confrontation, President Reagan reportedly agreed to consider a Soviet proposal aimed at reducing the risk of accidental war and said he has instructed his arms control negotiators to be flexible in seeking new nuclear weapons agreements.
In a statement anticipating the reopening of arms control talks in Geneva today, Reagan struck a hopeful tone, saying, "The time has come for practical achievements in all areas of our relations" with the Soviet Union.
But, repeating a general warning made by several officials in the last week, Reagan said that the Soviet prosecution of American reporter Nicholas Daniloff "limits severely what is achievable in our bilateral relations."
Nevertheless, Reagan said he hopes the scheduled meetings this week between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze will lay the groundwork for a second summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Reagan and his aides backed away from making any direct link between the prosecution of Daniloff, a U.S. News & World Report correspondent arrested in Moscow on espionage charges last month, and the several sets of U.S.-Soviet negotiations under way on other issues.
Officials said that Shultz would protest Daniloff's detention in his first meeting with Shevardnadze on Friday morning but added that they do not expect the issue to become an impassable obstacle to preparing for another summit.
"The President feels that any meeting with any foreign leader, including Secretary Gorbachev, can be helpful," White House spokesman Larry Speakes said.
Officials also took some care to insist that the order to the U.N. Soviet Mission to send 25 of its staff members home by Oct. 1 was not intended as retaliation for the charges against Daniloff.
"A reduction in size of the Soviet numbers at the U.N. is something that was put into motion several months ago," Speakes said. "It is unrelated in our minds to the Daniloff case."
But another official said that the brusque tone and sudden release of the expulsion order, which apparently took the Soviets by surprise, did reflect the strains in U.S.-Soviet relations that the Daniloff case has heightened. "It wasn't directly linked, but in the current atmosphere, nothing is completely unlinked," he said.
Another factor, he added, was a public statement by Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations Alexander M. Belonogov last week that he was not prepared to reduce his staff and considered the U.S. order illegal. "That was seen as throwing down a gauntlet," the U.S. official said.
The Administration could have waited until the Oct. 1 deadline passed and raised the issue more quietly, he said, but Reagan agreed with advisers Monday on the more confrontational approach.
Speakes repeated Shultz's warning that, if Moscow does not act to resolve the case against Daniloff, "other shoes will drop." But several officials said that no further U.S. action is likely until after the secretary meets with the Soviet foreign minister Friday and Saturday.
The Administration long has complained that the Soviet Union uses its diplomats at the United Nations for spying on the United States and that the Soviet missions in New York--which have about 275 people including the delegations from Byelorussia and the Ukraine--are more than twice as large as any other country's.
'Size Is Unreasonable'
"The Soviet missions to the United Nations have grown to the point where their size is unreasonable by any standard, an abuse of the right of representation, in flagrant disregard of the Soviets' responsibility," State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said. "Under such circumstances, international law permits the United States as host country to take reasonable corrective measures."
Last March, the Administration ordered the Soviets to reduce their U.N. staff by 105 members, beginning with a cut of 25 by Oct. 1.
"Since then, the Soviet mission has rebuffed repeated U.S. requests that it cooperate in implementing the necessary reductions," Kalb said. As a result, he said, the State Department drew up its own list of 25 members of the Soviet Mission and Wednesday gave them two weeks' notice to pack up and leave.
Other officials said that the list of 25 was drawn up by the State and Justice departments specifically to include several diplomats who are suspected espionage agents.
Kept Some Flexibility
Despite the tough tone of the expulsion order, the Administration deliberately left itself some flexibility on the issue by refusing to release the list, one official said.
"The Soviets still could agree to cooperate and we could then consider some changes in the list as long as the number remained at 25," he said.
If Moscow had agreed to the expulsion in the first place, he pointed out, the Soviets--not the Administration--could have named the 25 officials to leave.
Reagan also ordered flexibility in two sets of arms control negotiations, overruling hard-liners at the Pentagon, officials said.
Easing of Proposal
In the main U.S.-Soviet arms control talks in Geneva, Reagan's official instructions to chief negotiator Max M. Kampelman included an Administration decision made earlier this month to seek a reduction of roughly 30% in strategic nuclear weapons, officials said. That represented an easing of Reagan's initial proposal for a 50% cutback, which Soviet officials had argued would disproportionately weaken their nuclear forces.
"We have proposed a substantial cut, a 50% cut in strategic nuclear weapons, and we will continue to seek that goal," Speakes said. "However, we will remain flexible on our ability to reach that goal in hopes that we can get the Soviets to make some sort of an agreement that is satisfactory to both sides."
At the same time, Reagan reportedly has accepted a Soviet offer to allow foreign observers to verify Soviet troop movements in Europe by flying aboard Soviet aircraft.
Discussed in Stockholm
The Soviet proposal has been under discussion at a 35-nation conference in Stockholm charged with improving international security and reducing the risk of accidental war in Europe.
Western nations initially had proposed that neutral countries provide aircraft and equipment for foreign monitoring of troop movements, but the Soviet Union said that each country should provide planes and pilots in its own territory.
With the conference scheduled to conclude Friday, U.S. delegates are expected to accept the basic Soviet idea but to seek continued negotiations on the types of cameras and navigational equipment to be carried on the planes.