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‘Will Reciprocate’ on Arms, Gorbachev Says : Soviet Union: He calls nuclear cuts announced by Bush ‘significant steps’ but withholds detailed response.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev on Saturday praised the reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal announced by President Bush as “significant steps toward a nuclear-free world,” and he promised that the Soviet Union “will reciprocate.”

Without responding with immediate proposals of his own, Gorbachev said he and Bush agreed Friday to immediate Soviet-American talks on ways to accelerate the disarmament process.

“It is still premature to assess the whole scope of these proposals, especially as regards concrete issues,” Gorbachev said in a 10-minute interview on Soviet television. “That would be too hasty on our part and unconvincing for everyone.

“From what we know, we can say nonetheless that it is a serious proposal, though it raises many questions in my mind.”

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Gorbachev, reading from his notes of the conversation with Bush, said he asked the U.S. President about the inclusion of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in the cutbacks and the prospects for cutbacks by other nuclear powers, particularly Britain and France.

Most of all, Gorbachev said, he again pressed Bush to end the testing of nuclear weapons, a move that he has pushed but that Washington has resisted.

“Personally, I hold that this opens the possibility for an unprecedented step in the mutual termination of nuclear weapons tests,” Gorbachev said. “Then the whole world would be convinced: Yes, this is a new breakthrough that promises much.”

Despite the guarded nature of Gorbachev’s comments in response to questions from his press secretary, Andrei S. Grachev, the Soviet president was described by Kremlin aides as “jubilant” after Bush telephoned him Friday afternoon.

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“There is no question that he is ready to reciprocate,” one aide said, “but he needs to keep the generals with him. They will fear the loss of their power and see nothing but tricks. Yet, this strengthens Gorbachev’s hand by proving that his policies increase our security more than arms can.”

Gorbachev has been looking for ways to reduce the Soviet armed forces substantially, aides said, and the combination of U.S. unilateral moves and new negotiating proposals announced by Bush will give him a variety of options.

Bush outlined the U.S. reductions in a letter delivered to Gorbachev Friday morning. Before Bush telephoned, Gorbachev conferred at length with Air Marshall Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the new defense minister; Gen. Vladimir N. Lobov, the Soviet armed forces’ chief of staff, and Viktor Karpov, the country’s top arms-control negotiator.

“President Gorbachev and the experts had been over everything, and so his conversation with President Bush was quite substantive,” a Gorbachev aide said. “He is now considering our response, and this is an initiative that deserves a matching response.”

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Moscow’s moves will depend, another senior Soviet official said, on the details of the U.S. cutbacks, the strength of the remaining forces and Washington’s willingness to pursue further reductions unilaterally as well as through negotiation.

“We agreed with the President that we will find a mutually convenient way to clarify fully all the aspects of this very large-scale proposal by the President of the United States,” Gorbachev said in the television interview. “This should be done as soon as possible. We will find a method to cooperate, to act together.”

Grachev predicted before Gorbachev’s broadcast that “major positive steps might follow.” He said discussions were already under way here on a Soviet response.

For the Soviet Union, the most significant unilateral concession in the Bush package may be the withdrawal of sea-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. Soviet defense officials had sought to include these highly accurate missiles in arms-control negotiations in the belief that the weapons would give the United States a significant advantage in any nuclear conflict.

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Moscow had already pulled all its tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons out of Germany, Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, a Soviet arms-control specialist noted. Bush’s proposals may allow their reduction and even elimination from the Soviet arsenal, he said.

But the Kremlin is likely to take a more cautious approach to Bush’s proposal that the two superpowers further reduce and then eliminate their land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Soviet analyst said.

“Everyone knows, first of all in Washington, that is the strongest part of our triad (arsenal of nuclear weapons), and there will have to be some big inducements to get us to abandon it,” he commented.

Gorbachev, who has campaigned for an end to nuclear weapons by the year 2000, told his Soviet audience: “Without any overestimation, our evaluation of these proposals is positive, very positive.

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“It demonstrated the adherence of the American Administration to nuclear disarmament. As a result of these proposals, the process promises a serious movement toward a nuclear-free world.”

Bush’s proposal, he continued, was the development of a process begun at previous Soviet-American summit meetings in Geneva, Iceland, Washington, Moscow and Malta over the last six years.

“It is very important that the process of nuclear disarmament, in which both our countries took part, is entering a new level, acquiring new dynamics,” Gorbachev said.

The U.S. cutbacks would be viewed, Gorbachev said he assured Bush, “as a major step, as a large-scale initiative . . . on a par with the achievements that we made during the Reykjavik (Iceland) summit,” when he and former President Ronald Reagan reached their first broad agreement to reduce strategic (long-range) arsenals.

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