Soviet leader Yuri Andropov tonight rebuffed President Reagan's call for a summit meeting by asserting that Reagan's conditions were "patently unacceptable" to the Soviet Union.
Responding to the president's letter to the people of Europe, the new Soviet leader said Reagan's offer to sign an accord banning all U.S. and Soviet land-based medium-range nuclear missiles was merely a restatement of his "zero option" proposal at the Geneva arms talks.
Andropov, in an interview with the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, said Reagan's proposal was not "serious" and suggested that it was a part of "a propaganda game" to influence public opinion in Western Europe.
It was "precisely this unrealistic position of the United States that has blocked" progress in the Geneva talks on medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, Andropov said. By reiterating it, he added, Washington indicated that it "does not want to look for a mutually acceptable accord with the Soviet Union and thereby deliberately dooms the Geneva talks to failure."
While the substance of Andropov's argument broke no new ground, the Russians seemed to have reacted quickly in an effort to deflect any possible impact Reagan's proposals could have on Western Europe, the battleground of the current Soviet-American public relations struggle over arms control.
Reagan, in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch aboard Air Force One, said he was sending no new signal to Moscow with his offer.
"No, frankly, I was simply responding to their vast propaganda effort that would try to discount our legitimate proposal for arms reduction," Reagan said.
Landing in St. Louis, Reagan dismissed Andropov's comments, telling reporters, "I'm waiting for the real response, not the one they made public."
Andropov said he still believes "that summit meetings have special significance" for resolving complicated international problems. "For us," he added, "this is not a matter of a political or a propaganda game."
"But when the U.S. president makes the meeting conditional on the Soviet Union's consent to the patently unacceptable solution to the problem of nuclear armaments in Europe proposed by him, this by no means testifies to the seriousness of the American leadership's approach to the whole of this issue. This can only be regretted."
Andropov reiterated earlier Soviet warnings that Moscow would "answer in the appropriate way" if the United States actually deploys its new nuclear arms in Western Europe, but gave no details.
The United States has no medium-range land-based nuclear missiles deployed at present while the Soviet Union has several hundred of them aimed both at Western Europe and China. Under a 1979 NATO decision, the United States intends to deploy 572 Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe starting next December.
Reagan's "zero option" proposal would require Moscow to dismantle nearly 600 of its medium-range nuclear missiles in the European theater. In exchange, the United States would abandon plans to deploy its new missiles.
Moscow contends that the United States has sea- and air-based medium-range nuclear weapons in the European theater in addition to the nuclear deterrents of France and Britain.
Responding to Pravda's questions, Andropov said, "I must say quite definitely that there is nothing new in President Reagan's proposal. What it is all about . . . is the same 'zero option.' " He suggested that one cannot "seriously speak about" the proposal.
Andropov instead challenged the president to sign any of the Soviet counterproposals. Andropov said he was prepared to endorse a plan to ban all nuclear weapons, medium-range and tactical, from the European theater. "This would be an absolute zero for both sides," he said.
Or, he continued, restating the latest Soviet proposal, both sides could reduce their medium-range weapons "by more than two-thirds." Under this proposal, the Soviet Union would retain as many missiles as Britain and France have. "At the same time an arrangement should be reached on cutting to the equal levels by both sides of the number of aircraft capable of medium-range nuclear weapon delivery."
The Soviet Union is ready to sign such an agreement based on "complete parity in missiles and aircraft," he said. "Is the president of the United States prepared to sign such an agreement based on the principle of equality and equal security?"
The interview, which is scheduled to be published in Wednesday's edition of Pravda, was distributed in full by the government news agency Tass.
Andropov's tone was restrained and he did not repeat rhetorical charges made by other Soviet officials earlier in the day that Reagan's proposal was a tactical ploy to deceive West Europeans and lend support to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the March 6 elections. Kohl has been a supporter of the "zero option."
Moscow television showed antiwar demonstrations last night in West Berlin, where Vice President George Bush read Reagan's open letter to Europeans.
The news agency Novosti tonight issued a commentary on Bush's tour of Western Europe describing it as being "in the best traditions of a Hollywood promotion campaign." It said Bush's objective was to garner support for the "zero option" because he had no "constructive alternative proposals."
Despite Washington's public stand, senior NATO diplomats here say that there are signs of American flexibility at the Geneva talks and that Reagan would be prepared to abandon his "zero option" if he could get a fair and serious agreement.
In this view, both Moscow and Washington are expected to continue their cat-and-mouse game until the West German elections. Their outcome is expected to influence the bargaining positions of both sides.
While Kohl is supporting Reagan's plan, his Social Democratic challenger, Hans Jochen Vogel, has been ambivalent about the entire question of the deployment of the new U.S. weapons. A Vogel victory could have a domino effect on the other NATO countries scheduled to get American missiles--Holland, Belgium, Britain and Italy--and weaken Washington's position at the bargaining table.