The Soviet Bloc and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization both called Monday for significant cuts in the armies they maintain in Europe, declaring that success could mean an end to the 40-year-old Cold War.
Opening a new set of negotiations to reduce their conventional armed forces, foreign ministers from both sides of the Iron Curtain hailed what they described as a new spirit of cooperation and said they are optimistic about the chances of an eventual agreement.
“The opportunity that has been given to us is unique,” Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze told the opening session of the Negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. “We are in effect opening negotiations not just on reducing troops . . . . We are undertaking the task of overcoming the division of Europe.”
“There is a real sense of hope that we can put the 40 years (of) Cold War behind us,” said British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, who spoke for NATO. ". . . There are wide gaps, but there is a common spirit and a common approach to many of the questions.”
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who also addressed the conference, said he was “encouraged” by the Soviet Union’s new flexibility in foreign policy and called on Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to renounce “beyond any shadow of a doubt” the Brezhnev Doctrine--the policy under which Moscow has intervened to stop reform movements in Eastern Europe.
Baker also announced that President Bush hopes to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. chemical weapons from West Germany and called on the Soviet Union to reduce its chemical stockpile as well.
The removal of U.S. chemical weapons from West Germany was already scheduled to be completed by 1992. State Department officials said the pace of the withdrawal would depend on how quickly facilities for the storage and destruction of the weapons can be built.
Sweeping Soviet Proposal
But the most sweeping new proposal for arms reduction was offered by Shevardnadze, who called for cuts of more than 35% in troops and weaponry in Europe over a period of four to six years.
He said the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact is proposing that the two alliances begin by reducing their troops, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and combat aircraft to equal levels at least 10% below the current strength of the weaker of the two sides. In most categories, that is NATO.
Once those equal levels are reached, Shevardnadze said, each side could cut by 25% more.
“The gap between (Warsaw Pact and NATO) approaches can be bridged,” Shevardnadze said. ". . . Both sides believe that a lower level of overall military confrontation in Europe has to be attained. That is already a kind of starting point for the negotiations, which is not bad.”
State Department officials reacted cautiously to Shevardnadze’s proposals. “You’ve got to wait and see what is being defined and what they mean by it, and we don’t know that yet,” said one.
Cuts in Tanks Proposed
NATO has already proposed significant cuts in tanks, armored vehicles and artillery, the three categories of weapons in which the Soviet advantage is largest. The NATO proposal would reduce the number of tanks in Europe to about 20,000 on each side--a cut of more than 27,000 tanks from the huge Warsaw Pact armored forces, but only about 2,000 in the West.
Howe noted that NATO’s proposal would reduce the Soviet Union’s tank forces in Europe “by some two-thirds” and asked: “Will Mr. Gorbachev have the courage and imagination to turn them into scrap iron?”
Other NATO officials have said, however, that the Western proposal may appear too one-sided to be easily negotiable and that deeper cuts in NATO levels may be necessary.
The two sides also differ over what kinds of forces should be reduced. Shevardnadze reaffirmed the Soviet position that troops and combat aircraft--where the East-West differences are not as wide--should be part of the negotiations; NATO argues that cuts in troops and aircraft are too difficult to verify.
Many arms control experts believe the central issue of the negotiations will be to balance NATO’s desire for cuts in Warsaw Pact armor against the Soviet Bloc’s desire to reduce NATO superior air power.
Shevardnadze also formally proposed a new set of negotiations to eliminate battlefield nuclear weapons in Europe, to be “started as soon as possible.”
That proposal annoyed some U.S. officials here. “I think the purpose of presenting that proposal is to see whether possible fissures in the alliance can be developed,” said one State Department official.
NATO is opposed to eliminating tactical nuclear weapons because it considers them essential counterweights to a potential attack by the Warsaw Pact’s larger tank forces. The question has become a major political issue in West Germany, however, where polls show most voters want to see the warheads removed from German soil.
Baker’s address to the conference was his first speech before a major diplomatic meeting as secretary of state, and he took the occasion to speak broadly of “creating a new Europe, based on . . . freedom.”
Shevardnadze praised the speech in a brief exchange with reporters, saying it contained “many ideas.”
But it was the more topical exchange between Shevardnadze and Howe, whose speeches were more focused on the issue of the military balance in Europe, which caught most attention among diplomats.
Baker is scheduled to meet with Shevardnadze today for their first one-on-one encounter. U.S. officials said they will have a broad agenda, including not only U.S.-Soviet relations and arms control but also the Middle East and Central America, where the United States wants the Soviet Union to reduce its military aid to Nicaragua. A Soviet official said the two men are also expected to set a date in late April for Baker’s first official visit to Moscow.
The Negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which include the 16 members of NATO and the seven countries of the Warsaw Pact, are expected to continue for at least two years before an agreement can be reached, diplomats said.
The conference’s predecessor, the talks on Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions, lasted longer than 15 years--and produced no agreement. But diplomats agree that the new talks have a better chance, largely because of Gorbachev’s “new thinking” in Moscow.
SOVIET ARMS PROPOSAL IN VIENNA
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze presented a three-phase plan at East-West arms talks in Vienna to reduce conventional forces in Europe:
First phase--In two to three years, eliminate imbalance in troops and arms between Warsaw Pact and NATO forces, cutting 10% to 15% from current lowest numbers.
Second phase--In next two to three years, cut forces by another 25% and withdraw battlefield nuclear weapons to safe distance from “the line of contact” between military alliances.
Third phase--Convert remaining forces to “defensive character.”
While reductions are made, negotiations would be conducted on eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.