A new round of East-West negotiations begins in Vienna next week, seeking an agreement to shrink the NATO and Warsaw Pact armies that face each other in Central Europe.
But behind the steely debates over tank divisions and troop levels, the superpowers and their European allies are grappling with a more fundamental question: After 40 years, can the Cold War be brought to an end?
An increasing number of Western experts say changes in Soviet foreign policy made by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev offer a new chance to reduce the East-West military confrontation in Europe--and, eventually, to end the Continent’s political division.
“The imminent opening of (the Vienna) conventional arms control negotiations will . . . generate the imperative of a European political settlement,” former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger wrote last month. “Side by side with an unprecedented opportunity, there is an unprecedented challenge to Western statesmanship.”
‘Eve of a New Phase’
Egon Bahr, a foreign policy spokesman for West Germany’s opposition Social Democratic Party, agreed, noting: “We are on the eve of a new phase. For the first time since World War II, we can envision that the military confrontation in Europe will be replaced by economic competition and peaceful coexistence.”
The issue of ending Europe’s division into two hostile camps is on the table largely because of two new Gorbachev policies: his decision to seek significant cuts in Soviet defense spending, including a unilateral withdrawal of 50,000 troops from Europe, and his apparent tolerance of more diversity among Soviet satellite nations in Eastern Europe, which has let Hungary and Poland inch toward closer economic relationships with the West.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III will get a first-hand look at the issues beginning Sunday, when he arrives in Vienna for the opening session of the conventional arms talks. In his three-day stay in the Austrian capital, Baker will meet for the first time with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze--an encounter that U.S. officials have described as a “get-acquainted” talk.
They will discuss the full range of U.S.-Soviet concerns, from the stalled negotiations over strategic nuclear weapons (the START talks) to issues of trade and human rights, U.S. and Soviet officials said. They also plan to touch on two areas of special interest to both countries: Central America, where Baker is expected to urge the Soviet Union to reduce its military aid to Nicaragua; and the Middle East, where Shevardnadze has renewed his government’s call for an international peace conference.
The most concrete result of the meeting, scheduled to last two hours on Tuesday, simply may be a date for Baker to make his first visit to Moscow--probably in late April or early May, Soviet officials said.
But formally, at least, Baker and Shevardnadze will be in Vienna to help launch the Negotiations on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). Their speeches at the formal opening sessions will help set the tone for those talks, expected to last at least two years.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact have tried to negotiate reductions in their non-nuclear armies before, in talks that dragged on for 15 years without success. But U.S. and Western European experts believe that the CFE negotiations have a greater chance of sauccess because Moscow’s attitudes have changed.
“We’re a little bit optimistic, because some of the differences we had before are beginning to disappear,” said a U.S. official who has been involved in preparing the NATO position for the talks. He continued:
“There have been two significant changes in the Soviet position. First, they have accepted our argument that there are asymmetries (unequal levels of armed forces, with Soviet advantages in most categories). And second, they have accepted in principle the concept of on-site inspection, which you would need to verify any agreement on conventional forces.”
At the same time, he said the talks will not be simple or quick. “You’re looking at the most complicated negotiations we have,” he said.
The task does appear complex. The CFE talks will include the 16 member countries of NATO and the seven members of the Warsaw Pact. They will cover the entire European continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains east of Moscow. And within that area, they will seek to reduce an array of armies that includes more than 7 million troops, more than 12,000 combat aircraft, more than 67,000 tanks, more than 106,000 other armored vehicles, and so many pieces of artillery that they literally are uncounted.
The two sides already have drawn up their initial proposals.
NATO, which contends that the Soviet Bloc is ahead in virtually every category of weaponry, plans to ask for a cut to about 20,000 tanks for each side--a target that could require the Soviet Bloc to scrap more than 27,000 tanks (by NATO estimates) while the Western Alliance would reduce by only about 2,000.
Overall, NATO says it plans to propose that each side cut its tanks, armored vehicles and large artillery, to about 95% of current Western levels--a target that would require minimal changes in NATO’s armies but large cuts in Soviet Bloc forces.
The Soviet Union has not responded directly to that proposal, but Soviet officials have indicated they will seek even deeper cuts--and, especially, cuts that will target categories such as troops and combat aircraft, where the two sides are closer.
The NATO negotiating position has already come under criticism in the West. Jonathan Dean, who led the Jimmy Carter Administration delegation at the last round of conventional forces talks, said the United States should seek deeper cuts on both sides.
“NATO’s negotiating program does not go far enough to assure NATO security or to achieve real cuts in NATO defense spending,” Dean said. “At a minimal 5% to 10% cut for NATO, NATO’s approach does not really call for mutual reductions of the forces of both alliances. Instead, it calls for a huge Warsaw Pact tank cut as an advance payment for beginning serious East-West negotiations.”
Senior U.S. officials acknowledged that the initial NATO proposal may not go far enough and said NATO is considering deeper cuts that would apply to more types of weapons.
The talks also will be bedeviled by the two sides’ disagreement over how to count each others’ weapons. For example, NATO says it has 16,424 tanks, but the Warsaw Pact insists that the West actually has 30,690 tanks. The discrepancy occurs because the NATO number includes only heavy, “main battle” tanks; the Warsaw Pact counts both light and heavy tanks.
The CFE talks will consider not only the overall size of the two alliance’s armies but also where they are deployed and whether they are equipped for offensive or defensive warfare.
Both sides are considering proposals for a zone in Central Europe--essentially, along West Germany’s borders with East Germany and Czechoslovakia--from which offensive forces such as tanks could be banned.