The Carter administration is headed into its first critical round of nuclear arms control talks in Moscow with a negotiating position that appears certain to provoke at least an initial collision with the Soviet Union.
It is the hope in Washington that once Soviet leaders recover from their initial shock at the new U.S. diplomatic game plan they will see the American stand as an intended "offer they cannot refuse."
The prime element of Carter's new formula would virtually amount to scrapping the force level "ceilings" set at Vladivostok in November, 1974 by Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev and former President Ford.
In its place Carter has proposed "actual substantial reductions" for the first time in existing U.S. and Soviet offensive strategic weapons. The President did not say how deeply the Vladivostok levels of 2,400 intercontinental missiles and bombers on each side would be reduced by the new U.S. plan. That is to be revealed to the Soviet Union in Moscow next week by Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.
According to informed U.S. sources interviewed in recent days, however, the President would like to go considerably beyond the 10 per cent token cut in the level of 2,400 missile launchers discussed by Brezhnev and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger last year to sweeten the Vladivostok agreement.
This new foundation for negotiations presumably would encompass all the disputed weaponry that has disrupted negotiations since the Vladivostok meeting: the developing, long-range American cruise missile, similar to a pilotless jet aircraft and the most volatile new weapon in the debate; the Soviet bomber known as the Backfire, and mobile missiles.
Brezhnev, however, already has declared firm Soviet opposition to taking up "questions of limitation of strategic arms" at this stage. Brezhnev said on Jan. 18, and Soviet diplomats have reiterated since then, that "first it is necessary to consolidate . . . what was agreed upon in Vladivostok, all the more so since the term of the interim [U.S. Soviet] agreement expires this October."
Actual arms reductions, Brezhnev has said, should be left for SALT III, Limitation Talks, first consummated in 1972.
In that case, President Carter said yesterday, as a poor second-best the United States would propose as its "fall-back position . . . to ratify Vladivostok and to wait until later to solve some of the most difficult and contentious issues." This was a reference to the American long-range cruise missiles and Soviet Backfire bombers, not raised at Vladivostok.
But this is the core of current Soviet dismay. For what the Carter administration means, according to authoritative sources, is that no restrictions of any kind would be put on either cruise missiles or Backfire.
The Russians are described as almost apoplectic over this position. According to diplomatic sources, Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin, who conferred with Vance on Tuesday before leaving for Moscow to prepare for Vance's arrival there, was chagrined about what he could discern about the forthcoming two-pronged U.S. proposal.
It had been the Soviet expectation, as well as the expectation of many U.S. specialists, that in deferring the cruise-Backfire dispute both sides would curtail the deployment of both weapon systems until a later negotiation.
The Brezhnev-Kissinger approach of January, 1976, did include such limitations.
Kissinger was ready to trade off about 250 Backfire bombers, with Soviet pledges on limitation on their use, for an equal number of long-range cruise missiles on ships; to count bombers with 1,500-mile cruise missiles as multiple warhead weapons, and to ban long-range cruise missiles on submarines.
But the Kissinger approach was spurned inside the Ford administration, blocked by objections, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by others, including Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), who wields strong influence on U.S. arms control proposals.
It is the original position of Jackson and the joint chiefs that President Carter, in effect, now has adopted on this complex, but central, issue. The President, and Defense Secretary Harold Brown, are both quite interested in cruise missiles, which can be launched from air, sea or land, and are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish in their nuclear or nonnuclear, short-range or long-range versions.
In effect, the United States is now saying that cruise missiles and Backfire bombers will now "run free" unless the Russians opt for new "substantial reduction" in nuclear weaponry, Carter's first priority.
To the Russians, and to many Americans as well, there is no comparison between the two weapons systems. The Backfire bomber, which the Russians insist is a medium-range weapon rather than an intercontinental weapon, as the Pentagon contends, has marginal strategic significance, most U.S. experts agree.
Long-range cruise missiles, however, are an entirely new weapons system. Supporters of the cruise missile see it as the "great equalizer" to offset, or overtake, Soviet leads in other forms of nuclear weaponry.
The alternative course that President Carter now has set out - a new negotiation to cut back nuclear force levels - would require the Russians to plunge into their own internal negotiations inside the Politburo on bargaining strategy with the United States.
According to Soviet sources, this would open up to debate the entire range of nuclear weaponry, including, they contend, "major concessions" made by the Soviet Union at Vladisvostok in 1974.
U.S. sources is private acknowledge that this dilemma is likely to cause Brezhnev "to stomp and yell" when the Moscow talks begin next week. But, one source said, U.S. strategists are hopeful that Brezhnev and his colleagues, after reflection, will recognize "the bold, innovative" U.S. offer and bargain on it."