Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in his first public comment on the case of American journalist Nicholas Daniloff, said today that the newsman is a spy. He suggested that the case is being exploited in the United States to try to spoil superpower relations.
Russian-language radio reported the remarks and played a recording of meetings it said Gorbachev had held with citizens in the southern Soviet city of Krasnodar.
Gorbachev referred to Daniloff as "the spy who was caught red-handed" and said Americans are trying to use it "to spoil relations . . . and to fan up hatred.
"But we will not become nervous and will not be provoked," Gorbachev said.
As tensions rose, the Soviets exchanged barbs today with the Reagan Administration over a U.S. order that 25 Soviet diplomats assigned to the United Nations leave the country by Oct. 1.
'A Bad Decision'
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, arriving in Washington on the eve of a two-day meeting with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, called the expulsion illegal and also "a bad decision."
The United States denied that the expulsion order was in retaliation for the Daniloff affair. (Story on Page 12.) But published reports quoted one White House official as saying there was a desire to appear tough and to show that the United States is ready to use retaliatory measures until the case is resolved.
State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb, responding to Gorbachev's statement on Daniloff, said the reporter is the victim of "contrived charges, a frame-up, and there is no retreat from that."
Kalb said the Daniloff case is Shultz's "priority" in the impending session with Shevardnadze.
Another U.S. official, who demanded anonymity, said Shultz is prepared to end the discussion "after five minutes" if Shevardnadze does not provide an acceptable reply.
Firm but Constructive
In Krasnodar, in his first public appearance since he left Moscow on Aug. 19 for a vacation, Gorbachev referred to the Daniloff case after he was asked about Soviet relations with the West. A resident in the crowd suggested that the Kremlin is being soft on the United States.
Gorbachev replied that a firm but constructive policy is needed toward Washington.
He said officials in the United States have tried in the past to frustrate improvements in relations with Moscow, and he suggested that this is happening again with the Daniloff case.
Daniloff, Moscow correspondent for the magazine U.S. News & World Report, was arrested Aug. 30 in Moscow and charged with spying. He was released Sept. 12 in the custody of the U.S. Embassy.
His release was arranged in exchange for the release in the United States of Gennady Zakharov, a Soviet employee of the United Nations arrested in New York on Aug. 23 and charged with spying.
Mission Already Cut
In New York today, the chief Soviet U.N. delegate, Alexander Belonogov, said the Soviets had already cut their mission to 208, which is 10 below the demanded level.
But Kalb, the State Department spokesman, said Soviets holding visas are "well over the level of 218." He declined to give a precise count and he accused the Soviets of disobeying the order, issued initially last March, by not providing the names of any departing diplomats.
"This kind of behavior cannot but provoke condemnation, nor can it remain without consequences," Belonogov told a news conference.
Asked whether this means that the Soviet Union plans to take retaliatory action, the Soviet envoy said it would be "premature to do so."
"The case is not yet closed," he said.