Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was quoted today as having told the West German opposition leader that the Soviet Union was prepared to destroy some of its modern medium-range missiles as part of a negotiated arms reduction agreement with the United States.
West German sources said Andropov made the remark Tuesday during his 2 1/2-hour conversation with Hans Jochen Vogel, the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor in West Germany's federal election on March 6.
The same possibility was raised by senior Soviet arms control specialists in a meeting with a group of visiting U.S. congressmen yesterday.
At a news conference today, Vogel indirectly confirmed this when responding to a question whether the reports about the Soviet offer were correct. He said his discussions with Andropov and other senior officials "do not contradict" statements by the U.S. congressmen. But Vogel refused to make detailed comments before he could inform the Bonn government about his talks.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman expressed approval of the reported Soviet remarks to the U.S. congressmen on dismantling some missiles.
Spokesman Alan Romberg said, "It may be that they recognize the merits of our position that the missiles should be destroyed rather than merely withdrawn."
The real substance of Andropov's remarks can be assessed only after Vogel relates precisely what transpired in their meeting yesterday. The issue of physically dismantling Soviet missiles is an important one. Some skeptics have argued that the mobile SS20 could be easily moved to the Asian part of the Soviet Union in what the Soviets could claim to be a reduction of their force in the European theater. The missiles, however, easily could be moved back to European Russia in an emergency.
The Soviets previously have given broad hints that some of their missile arsenal would be dismantled, but they have not explicitly mentioned that this would apply to their modern SS20 weapons.
Vogel, speaking at the end of his three-day visit, said his talks in Washington last week and in Moscow this week had raised his hopes for a settlement at the Geneva talks on curbing medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
He also appeared to take a distinctly different stand on the issue from that of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Asked about it, Vogel said: "We do not want rockets that are aimed at our country, but we also do not want missiles on our territory that would be aimed at other countries."
He continued: "My deep impression is that the American side is not going to remain indefinitely on its starting position and that the talks could achieve positive results."
Andropov announced on Dec. 21 that he was prepared to reduce the number of medium-range missiles that the Soviets insist on deploying in European Russia from 300 to the level of the combined strategic arsenals of France and Britain, or 162. In other words, the Soviets have substantially improved their offer at Geneva in an effort to block the planned deployment beginning in December of 572 new U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe.
President Reagan had advanced the so-called "zero option" as the U.S. position, under which the Soviets would have to dismantle all their medium-range missiles in the European theater if the United States is to forego the planned deployment.
West German sources said privately that Vogel had told Andropov that Moscow should improve considerably its Dec. 21 offer for the West to start serious negotiations.
The visit here by Vogel seemed to be part of an effort to build up his image in West Germany prior to the March election. Vogel left tonight for Bonn and was due to fly to Paris Thursday for talks with French President Francois Mitterrand.
While clearly campaigning in Moscow, Vogel was seen by western diplomatic observers here as providing the Soviets with an extraordinary opportunity to air their views and positions before Western European audiences. The Soviets seem to have again gained a propaganda advantage that they apparently hope will translate into Western European pressure on the Reagan administration to moderate its positions in the Geneva talks.
Asked about his impression of Andropov, Vogel said he was impressed by "the depth and scope" of Andropov's arguments. He came away with the feeling, Vogel continued, that Andropov was "fully and completely conscious of the responsibility" he had not only to protect the security of his country but also "for the fate of mankind."
Vogel today publicly welcomed the recent Warsaw Pact offer to negotiate a nonaggression pact with NATO. He said the offer deserves a "very serious study."
In Brussels, NATO issued a statement saying it would carefully study the Warsaw Pact proposals made at a summit meeting in Prague last week.