A Soviet offer at the Geneva arms talks to ban space weapons research and freeze nuclear missiles appears to be part of a propaganda effort aimed at reviving antinuclear campaigns in Europe and the United States, according to western officials.
Moscow's initial negotiating position was reported during the past week by communist party newspapers in East Germany and Czechoslovakia in an apparent effort to evade the confidentiality rule approved by U.S. and Soviet delegations when the Geneva arms talks opened last month.
The Soviet package, publicized just before the traditional Easter peace marches in Western Europe, calls for a halt to research, testing and deployment of space weapons and a freeze on strategic nuclear arms. It also seeks to block further deployment of U.S. medium-range missiles in Europe in exchange for a halt to Soviet "countermeasures."
NATO officials said such a term evidently refers to the short-range SS22 and SS23 missiles that Moscow has moved into East Germany and Czechoslovakia since Pershing II and cruise missiles began arriving in Western Europe 16 months ago.
The Soviet Bloc press accounts made no mention of the Soviet Union's arsenal of medium-range SS20 rockets, which the new NATO missiles are supposed to counter.
A spokesman for the U.S. arms control delegation in Geneva declined to comment, but knowledgeable western sources confirmed that Soviet negotiators have made such proposals.
The Soviet package appeared to represent no significant change in policy and basically echoed the views outlined by Mikhail Gorbachev in his maiden speech March 11 as Soviet Communist Party leader. At that time, Gorbachev said Moscow favored a nuclear weapons freeze and a ban on all development of space weapons during the course of the arms talks.
U.S. negotiators were described as "not overly dismayed" by the stale moratorium offer and characterized it as a predictable "first-stage maneuver in order to test the waters," according to western officials.
The repetition of known positions "was not yet regarded as a serious problem" because the Americans say they expect Moscow to produce new, more imaginative proposals in future negotiating rounds, the officials said. But any tangible progress toward an agreement probably will have to await the outcome of a summit meeting, perhaps this autumn, between Gorbachev and President Reagan, they added.
"If the Soviets think of the moratorium idea as a serious one, then we will never get anywhere in the negotiations," a West German arms control specialist said. "It would degenerate into little more than a propaganda exercise."
NATO officials also speculated that the publication of the Soviet position in East Berlin's Neues Deutschland and Prague's Rude Pravo could reflect a desire to depict Soviet sincerity about arms control in Soviet Bloc countries that want to see progress in Geneva.
East Germany and Czechoslovakia accepted Soviet short-range missiles in retaliation for the NATO deployments only with extreme reluctance. Local peace groups staged candlelight vigils in protest, and East German leader Erich Honecker publicly admitted that the new missiles brought "no joy" to his people.
The method of unveiling the opening Soviet positions in the form of an exclusive dispatch from Brussels that first appeared in Neues Deutschland March 29 was widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to disseminate its message while disclaiming direct responsibility.
The United States complained that the Soviets violated the confidentiality accord shortly after the talks began when Viktor Karpov, the head of the Soviet delegation and its negotiator on strategic nuclear arms, gave an interview on Soviet television criticizing U.S. views on space arms research outlined in an early session by chief U.S. negotiator Max M. Kampelman.
"We don't exactly think that Karpov was waylaid by some relentless Soviet television reporter who squeezed the comments out of him," a member of the U.S. delegation said.