The Soviet Union has rejected the offer of the United States and its NATO allies to negotiate limitations on American and Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles being deployed in Europe by the two superpowers, U.S. officials said yesterday.
In a response delivered to the State Department Thursday, the U.S. official said, the Soviets insisted that no talks can take place on limiting European-based missiles in this category until the NATO alliance publicly reverses its Dec. 12 decision to station a new generation of U.S. missiles in Western Europe.
The Soviet move seems certain to add yet another element of tension to the rapidly deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow. But the U.S. officials said it did not appear to be tied directly to President Carter's decision to shelve temporarily the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Carter administration announced yesterday that it intends to abide by the provisions of SALT II as long as this action is judged to be in the U.S. national interest. In making the announcement, the administration said it "expects" the Soviets also will "refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of the SALT II treaty before it is ratified and enters into force."
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, at its winter meeting of foreign and defense ministers on Dec. 12 in Brussels, agreed to deploy U.S. Tomahawk and new-generation Pershing missiles in West European bases where they will be able to strike deep inside the Soviet Union. The weapons, whose deployment is to begin in 1983, are intended to balance new Soviet 2,500-mile-range SS20 mobile missiles already in place and scores of new Soviet Backfore bombers.
The NATO decision was extremely sensitive politically in a number of alliance countries, in part because of a heavy Soviet campaign of conciliatory gestures and threats designed to put pressure on America's allies not to go along.
In order to relieve the pressure, NATO decided to couple its moving ahead on deployment of the missiles with an offer to open negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on limiting their use. The idea was to bring into the scope of any future SALT III negotiations limits on these so-called theater nuclear forces.
On Dec. 18, U.S. officials said, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance presented the NATO plan to Vladillen M. Vasy, acting head of the Soviet embassy here in the absence of Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin.
According to the officials, Vance said the proposed talks should encompass three main principles: that any limits on U.S. medium-range missile systems must be accompanied by similar Soviet limitations, that the talks should be between Washington and Moscow within the context of SALT, and that their immediate objective should be to put limits on the landbased missile systems in Western and Eastern Europe.
On Thursday, the officials said, Vasey returned to deliver the Soviet reply. The bottom line, the officials stressed, was that Moscow insists on a public reversal of NATO's decision on deploying Tomahawks and Pershings before any talks can begin.
In the meantime, State Department spokesman Hodding Carter yesterday-announced the adminstration's intention to abide by the provisions of SALT II. On Thursday, President Carter asked for indefinite postponement of Senate debate on approving the treaty because the Afghanistan situation made it "inappropriate" at the present time.
In saying that the United States will abide by the provisions agreed upon in long-running negotiations leading to the signing of the treaty in Vienna last June, spokesman Carter specifically cited the limit on the number of warheads permitted on a single missile, and the limitations on testing of "new types" of missiles.
Experts have expressed the view that the Soviet Union is in a better position to move beyond these limits than is the United States at the present time. Carter said no Soviet assurances of compliance have been received since the White House announcement Thursday but the United States "will be watching" what action the Russians take.
The spokesman maintained that the White House action was not a death blow to the arms treaty, saying "what the administration has not done is to bury it -- what it has done is to defer it."
Action by either side that seriously breaches the terms of the treaty before a Senate debate on its ratification would probably kill it, a State Department official pointed out.
Spokesman Carter said the U.S. statement about abiding by the SALT II terms is taken in a "short-term context," with a Senate debate on ratification still intended at a future time.