The Reagan administration yesterday dismissed Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko's charges that the United States is obstructing progress on arms control as "wholly familiar and wholly false" and said it will resume nuclear disarmament talks "the moment the Soviet Union declares its willingness to join us."
A lengthy and sharply worded comment came from the State Department in response to remarks attributed to Chernenko and released Saturday by the Soviet news agency Tass in the form of an interview.
Chernenko said that the Soviet Union was willing to negotiate with the United States on a wide range of nuclear and other issues, but added that Washington had made such dialogue impossible by setting unacceptable conditions.
His criticism, and the U.S. rejoinder, appeared to signal a new round of the charges and countercharges that the two governments have hurled at each other in recent months and that became especially intense after the Soviets in June proposed a meeting to negotiate an agreement on weapons in space.
The United States initially accepted the proposal, but after lengthy diplomatic maneuvering and public posturing by both sides, Moscow dashed hopes for a meeting in Vienna later this month by rejecting the U.S. position.
When it became clear that the meeting had been aborted, the United States sought to take U.S.-Soviet dialogue out of the public eye and return it to quiet diplomatic channels.
However, with arms control policy destined to be a major topic of debate in the U.S. presidential campaign, it seems inevitable that the Reagan administration and the Kremlin leadership will seek to influence U.S. voters and world opinion by continuing to blame each other publicly for frigid relations.
Some U.S. officials, noting that there apparently was nothing new in Chernenko's comments, speculated that the timing might have been intended to deflect speculation that Chernenko, who has been absent from public view, has been hospitalized with heart trouble.
In an apparent nod to its call for quiet diplomacy, the administration made its reply to Chernenko not as a formal statement but as "press guidance" for State Department spokesmen to use in answering questions about the Tass interview. But the guidance was lengthy and, on some points, bitingly sarcastic.
"The United States . . . is seeking and will continue to seek more stable and constructive relations with the Soviet Union through negotiations," it said in reference to the two sets of Geneva nuclear negotiations broken off by the Soviets. These are the separate but parallel strategic arms reduction talks (START) on intercontinental nuclear missiles and the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) talks.
"We are ready to return to the Geneva negotiations on START and INF the moment the Soviet Union declares its willingness to join us," the guidance said. "It was in that spirit that we accepted the Soviet offer to begin talks on outer space in Vienna, and we are disappointed at the Soviet refusal to take yes for an answer, which Mr. Chernenko reiterates."
It said that "at first reading," Chernenko's comments don't "appear to go beyond previous Soviet policy statements," and added: "His assessment of U.S. policy is unfortunately both wholly familiar and wholly false."