The United States and key European allies are pressing the Soviet Union for further details on its recent proposals for arms limitation, particularly concerning verification of compliance, to find out if they represent significant departures from previous Kremlin positions.
Following weekend statements from President Reagan and spokesmen in West Germany, Britain and France intended to show that the Soviet offers would be examined seriously, Western ambassadors are meeting individually with Soviet officials, including Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, in Moscow to discuss last week's Warsaw Pact communique. Gromyko is to visit Bonn next week. "We could hardly do less than ask a lot of probing questions," said a British diplomat summing up the meetings.
Some diplomats expressed interest in what they said appears to be a shift in past Soviet language on verification of arms agreements. The 7,000-word document, issued after the meeting of Warsaw Pact party and government leaders, refers to "necessary international procedures" for verifying future arms accords, which could signify general acceptance of on-site inspection of Soviet military installations. This would be a major breakthrough in disarmament terms, as Moscow has in the past indicated only a limited willingness to consider such inspections.
The allies still strongly believe, sources said, that the Soviet initiatives--featuring a nonaggression treaty and a host of weapons bans--are part of a strategy to stir public resistance to NATO plans for deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in five Western countries as a counter to existing Soviet SS20 medium-range missiles.
The text of the communique is under study, but the proposals do not appear to be new, expert analysts say. Nonetheless, to dismiss out of hand a series of major Kremlin pronouncements on arms issues so soon after the ascendancy of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov would be counterproductive in domestic political terms, Western diplomats agreed. There is also the chance, they said, that the Soviets are genuinely prepared to improve the atmosphere of East-West relations.
After several days of deliberations following the mid-week Warsaw Pact statements, Reagan called the Soviet initiatives "a serious foundation for progress." British Foreign Secretary Francis Pym said the pact's communique was a "document of great significance." West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher called the offers "noteworthy and remarkable."
Reagan also announced that he would be sending Vice President Bush to Europe Jan. 30 for 12 days to coordinate alliance arms strategy in response to the Soviet moves. Soundings in London and on the continent indicate that Bush can expect to find the European governments shaping their positions to meet the demands of electoral timetables or even popular sentiment on unrelated matters--such as the widespread recession--rather than devising new defense strategy.
It appears Bush will be urged to recommend to Reagan some flexibility in the American bargaining position at the arms talks. This could take advantage of any meaningful shift in the Soviet stand and ease public concern that hopes for an agreement have been foreclosed.
The Reagan administration itself is under pressure at home to make headway in arms bargaining. But West Germany holds national elections March 6, and the British could vote by spring.
In both countries, opposition parties are forcing governments to consider moving away from the "zero option." This proposal, which has been the basic U.S. position in the negotiations, would require the Soviets to dismantle the more than 600 medium-range missiles targeted on Europe in return for the cancellation of NATO's deployment of 572 Pershing II and cruise missiles.