Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev told Secretary of State James A. Baker today that the Soviet Union will unilaterally reduce the number of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe by dismantling 500 warheads, U.S. officials said.
The unilateral reduction, involving about 5% of Soviet short-range nuclear weapons in Europe, was seen by U.S. officials traveling with Baker as a way for the Soviets to step up political pressure on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to negotiate further reductions in short-range nuclear missiles.
Baker told reporters traveling with him that the Soviet decision to reduce the number of its short-range warheads is "a small step, a good step" and noted that the United States has junked 2,400 warheads since 1979.
The question of whether to negotiate a reduction in short-range missiles has split the Western Alliance, with West Germany favoring immediate negotiations on the issue, a position the United States and Britain have adamantly opposed.
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, speaking to reporters in Moscow as Baker flew to Brussels to brief NATO allies, said the Soviet Union will officially announce its proposal on nuclear weapons reduction Friday.
"A most important initiative about reductions in Soviet tactical nuclear munitions in Europe and a comprehensive resolution of this question were presented," Shevardnadze said. "Our known proposal for separate talks without delay . . . indeed still holds good."
A U.S. official with Baker said the Soviet proposal is a timely answer to a Western challenge for specific numbers of warheads to be reduced and will be a difficult challenge for NATO to deal with.
Baker and Gorbachev agreed at their 3 1/2-hour meeting today to resume U.S.-Soviet negotiations next month on long-range nuclear missiles and nuclear testing. Baker refused to open talks on the short-range missiles, however.
Gorbachev told Baker during the Moscow meeting that the Soviets will take two major arms control initiatives to the Vienna arms talks--the reduction of 500 short-range warheads and details of long-awaited troop reductions announced in December, 1988, U.S. officials said.
Baker rebuffed Gorbachev's request for negotiations on the short-range missiles in the unexpectedly long Kremlin meeting the secretary later described as a "rather extensive and in-depth discussion." He told reporters that he and the Soviets "agreed that we would continue to disagree agreeably on this."
The secretary said the United States will not negotiate cutbacks in NATO's Lance missiles because Washington believes that the weapons have served as an effective deterrent to the Soviet Bloc.