IN THE 24 YEARS that I have spent in Washington, I have witnessed many crucial junctures in Soviet-American relations. There have been some great moments of hope and, alas, some enormously frustrating lost opportunities. But it's not easy to remember a period when so much was at stake as now, because the decisions soon to be made will determine without doubt the future -- not only ours, but our children's and grandchildren's. For what is going to happen in 1986 will shape the nature of the long-term relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States into the 21st Century, into the third millenium of what we call the Common Era.

These very words -- common era -- have acquired a new meaning nowadays because, for good or for bad, our two nations can only survive together, or perish together. It's an illusion to believe that one country can safeguard its security at the expense of the other. Like it or not, the age of invulnerability belongs to history. Nobody today is immune from the danger of the nuclear holocaust. That means that you can't have security if we don't have it, and vice versa. That means that we can have either common security or common Armageddon. That's what "common era" means in 1986.

The choice we face is obvious: Shall we keep on building weapons of mass destruction and bring the logic of the Stone Age beyond the limit of our planet, making even heaven into a high-tech battlefield? Or should we come to our senses -- common sense -- and realize that counting on a bigger stick or X-ray laser is hopelessly outdated, that we cannot gamble forever with our existence as nations, as societies, as human beings?

My country has made its choice.

This week the 27th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union begins its sessions in Moscow. We shall discuss and choose basic guidelines for the social and economic development of the U.S.S.R. for the next five years and also to the year 2000. Our plans envisage the most efficient ways of meeting the economic needs and cultural requirements of the Soviet people, of achieving the political goal of our society -- social justice. Our guidelines demand, among other targets, that we double in the next 15 years the production of consumer goods and services. As General Secretary Gorbachev said, "By using on a wide scale the achievements of the scientific and technological revolution, and by devising forms of socialist economic management in keeping with modern conditions and requirements, we shall achieve a substantial acceleration of socio-economic progress."

We are sure we can make it -- the U.S.S.R. has enormous natural resources, giant intellectual potential, a solid scientific and technological base. Our country doesn't reject mutually beneficial cooperation with others, but the Soviet people know that our problems can be solved by our own work.

There's only one thing, we think, that doesn't depend on our efforts alone. That's peace all over the world, peaceful relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.

So even before the Party congress, I, as a delegate, can safely predict its message: Just as further changes and transformations to invigorate economic, social and political life will be our domestic priorities, fresh ideas on preserving peace and consolidating international stability will be at the heart of the Soviet foreign policy. For we believe that despite all the dangers of today's world, there are real opportunities to break the vicious circle of action and reaction in the arms race.

It's difficult to underestimate the importance of the new Soviet proposals recently made by General Secretary Gorbachev. This historic program proposes practical and realistic three-stage measures to get rid of nuclear weapons by the end of this century. At the first stage of nuclear disarmament we propose to cut the Soviet and American systems that can strike the territory of "the opposite side," by half. At further stages we envisage more drastic reductions until all the nuclear weapons on our planet are eliminated.

Nobody thinks this will be easy to achieve. But it's high time to begin. And even before reductions are completed, or even started, a simple but very effective step can be taken to put the brakes on the nuclear arms race: discontinuing nuclear tests. My country proved that it means business when it unilaterally stopped underground testing more than seven months ago. We extended this moratorium through March 31, and we are ready to keep it indefinitely if we're joined by the United States. It's not enough to wish that nuclear weapons become "impotent and obsolete" when you can prove your sincerity by practical deeds.

And we shouldn't be captive to a false dilemma -- all or nothing -- but use existing opportunities right now. We believe that, as a first step, it's possible to defuse nuclear confrontation where it is most acute: in Europe. Thus we propose that, apart from other problems, Soviet and American medium-range nuclear weapons should be eliminated in the European zone. The only condition is that these reductions shouldn't be used to channel the arms race in other directions. Thus we think it is fair to expect that Britain and France wouldn't build up their nuclear stockpiles and that the United States wouldn't transfer its strategic and medium-range missiles to other countries.

People who are skeptical about nuclear disarmament claim that verification is an insurmountable obstacle. We don't think so. Verification is not a problem as far as we are concerned. We propose that on-site inspections should be used along with national technical means. We are prepared for any other additional verification measures. But we mean verification of weapons reductions, not of the arms race.

That's why we strongly object to the weaponization of outer space. You cannot disarm on the Earth while arming the heavens. Star Peace, not Star Wars -- that's our approach. We are sure that radical nuclear arms reductions can stabilize our relationship only if outer space will remain weapons-free.

Let's adjust to the mentality of the "common era" and see that, while so many things divide us, outer space can bring us together -- recognizing the common goal of humankind and offering boundless opportunities for international peaceful cooperation and joint ventures. The tragedy of the Challenger shows the enormous dangers that await the heroic men and women who lead the way. But, I think, it also reminds us that exploring the expanses of outer space may provide a unique bond of kinship between our two space-faring nations that can open new scientific and technological opportunities and also bring people on to the new frontiers of friendship and cooperation.

We are looking forward to the U.S. government's positive response to our far-reaching initiatives, which, we hope, will build on the momentum these initiatives have created and thus help us move toward a successful, productive meeting between General Secretary Gorbachev and President Reagan later this year.