Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko is prepared to travel to Washington to meet with President Reagan later this month after he meets with Secretary of State George P. Shultz at the United Nations, a top Foreign Ministry official said in an interview with NBC television here today.
Gromyko already had agreed to meet with Shultz during the General Assembly session scheduled to begin on Sept. 13, but a meeting with Reagan had not been mentioned publicly.
In Washington, Reagan and other administration officials refused to confirm publicly that a White House meeting between Reagan and Gromyko is being planned.
Privately, however, U.S. officials said that negotiations for a Reagan-Gromyko meeting have been going on secretly and that the final arrangements are expected to hinge on the outcome of talks between Shultz and Gromyko in New York on Sept. 26, Washington Post staff writer John M. Goshko reported.
Officially, the Soviets have taken a harsh anti-Reagan position, repeatedly accusing him of militaristic policies that undermine any hope of improving Soviet-American relations.
But today's declaration that Gromyko is willing to meet Reagan during the election campaign appears to be the second signal from Moscow that the Soviets expect him to be reelected and still want to do business with him.
The first such signal was the Soviet offer June 29 to begin negotiations on banning weapons in outer space. Soon after they made that suggestion, however, Moscow set conditions for the talks that it presumably knew would be rejected by Washington.
Appearing on the same interview, the newly appointed chief of the Soviet general staff, Sergei Akhromeyev, offered the first bit of information about the fate of the man he suddenly replaced last week, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov. Akhromeyev said Ogarkov will hold a "responsible" position within the Soviet military. Informed Soviet sources said today that Ogarkov may be in line to replace Marshal Viktor G. Kulikov as commander of Warsaw Pact forces.
In today's interview with NBC, First Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Kornienko noted it had once been a tradition for Gromyko to go to Washington to see the American president after attending the U.N. session in New York.
"If this time in Washington they think it is appropriate to turn back to that practice, then I believe there will be no difficulties on our part," he said.
Last year, Gromyko canceled his U.N. visit when U.S. civilian airports, with the tacit approval of the Reagan administration, denied his plane landing rights in the aftermath of the downing of a Korean passenger plane by a Soviet fighter.
Gromyko, who currently is the chief architect of the Kremlin's foreign policy, has not visited the White House since 1978, during the Carter administration.
Kornienko's comment comes at a time when Soviet spokesmen have been sharply criticizing the Reagan administration and the Republican Party for "militaristic" and "hegemonistic" policies which, they say, are the source of international tension. Reagan's joking comments last month about bombing the Soviet Union and hard-line anti-Soviet sentiments expressed in the GOP platform aggravated Soviet reactions to the U.S. administration.
Recently, the Soviet press has called Reagan's more conciliatory comments a case of putting on "the mask of a sort of peacemaker" for election purposes.
A Gromyko meeting with Reagan now would appear to blunt the effect of such criticism, although Kornienko gave no indication that the Soviets would change their bargaining positions on arms control. Instead he firmly reiterated familiar Soviet positions, demanding that newly deployed Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe be withdrawn before talks on limiting medium-range and intercontinental missiles can resume.
Kornienko said a meeting between Reagan and Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko could occur only after thorough preliminary talks on bilateral issues. Without such preparations, a summit would not only be "not useful, but could do damage," Kornienko said.
Akhromeyev skirted a question about Chernenko's health by saying only that the Soviet leader "is working; he is carrying out his functions and I cannot add anything."
Chernenko's health became a topic of speculation when he was not seen in public for seven weeks. The 72-year-old leader was shown on Soviet television last Wednesday at a Kremlin ceremony.
In his first public comment on his appointment as chief of staff, Akhromeyev told NBC that Ogarkov's replacement was a "regular change."
"Since Marshal Ogarkov was chief of staff, three chairmen of the United States joint chiefs of staff changed and it didn't raise speculation in the Soviet Union. In this case, one shouldn't give special speculation to this assignment," Akhromeyev said.
Kornienko chafed at a question on the whereabouts and well-being of Nobel peace prize winner Andrei Sakharov.
"The question by itself is far-fetched," he said. "You know perfectly well that he is in the city of Gorki and that he feels no worse than any man his age." He said the Sakharov issue is "deliberately raised by those who want to do harm."
Goshko added from Washington:
U.S. officials said privately that if things go as expected in talks Sept. 26 between Shultz and Gromyko, Reagan will see Gromyko at the White House either later that week or during the first week of October.
The officials said the meeting could be derailed if unexpected hitches develop in the meeting with Shultz or if that session indicates that a follow-up with Reagan would be counterproductive. But, they added, administration officials are optimistic that there will be sufficient common ground to proceed with a White House meeting.
They cautioned that they do not know what effect direct talks between Reagan and Gromyko would have on reviving nuclear arms control talks or other issues that have been contributing to U.S.-Soviet tensions. When the Shultz meeting with Gromyko was announced last week, the administration said it did not expect any dramatic shifts in Soviet positions and was approaching the session in a "low-key and realistic" manner.
However, a presidential meeting with Gromyko could be of great significance to Reagan in his reelection campaign. It would enable the president, who has been criticized for taking too tough a line toward the Soviets, to portray himself as seeking avenues of accommodation.
When reporters asked Reagan today whether he would receive Gromyko, he replied: "There'll be time to talk about that at another time, later."
State Department spokesman John Hughes said he would "rest on the remarks" of Shultz, who said Sunday that "what we have to announce right now is the fact that I'll be meeting with Mr. Gromyko and what other events may be scheduled remains to be seen."
In private, though, U.S. officials said that during the negotiations to arrange the Shultz-Gromyko meeting, the Soviets had indicated their willingness for talks with Reagan. The officials added that Kornienko would not have expressed that willingness publicly unless the Soviets were reasonably certain of a positive U.S. response.