Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's first foreign policy initiative tends to confirm the expectations in Washington that, at last, the Kremlin has a star on the world stage capable of competing for attention with President Reagan.
The substance of Gorbachev's proposals in his interview with Pravda suggests continuity rather than change in the Geneva arms talks and in the contest for international public opinion. The interview also holds out the prospect of a summit meeting with Reagan while taking no additional strides in that direction.
What is new is that Gorbachev took the public initiative quickly, less than one month after assuming power, and did so in a manner tailored to appeal to western audiences, especially those in the political battleground of Western Europe.
The Kremlin statement came as a surprise to the West as millions celebrated Easter on a quiet Sunday. The signs are that its timing was political: to create a favorable framework for a series of meetings in Moscow this week with important visitors whose presence there symbolizes a new activism in Soviet diplomacy. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and a bipartisan House delegation arrived in the Soviet capital yesterday expressing "a desire for peace" and anticipating a meeting with the Soviet leader.
Almost simultaneously, a senior Chinese envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, flew into the Soviet capital for a new round of negotiations aimed at easing the rivalry between the two giants of international communism.
Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek is due in Moscow on Tuesday for talks on Holland's potential deployment of U.S. cruise missiles.
The visitors can be expected to pay special attention to elements of Gorbachev's interview: O'Neill to the talk of a nuclear freeze, which the speaker and many other Democrats support, and Qian to the moratorium on deployment of medium-range SS20 missiles, some of which are aimed at China. Most news reports yesterday described Gorbachev's SS20 moratorium as limited to Europe, but the actual text was ambiguous.
The Netherlands' van den Broek has a special stake in Gorbachev's announcement that the Soviet moratorium will last until November. This is when that NATO country is to make its final decision on whether to accept U.S. missiles, with the status of Soviet deployments an important factor.
Gorbachev's moratorium on SS20 deployment is only the latest in a series of such offers from Moscow going back to 1979. This one flies in the face of last December's NATO statement refusing to halt U.S. deployment of medium-range missiles "in the absence of a concrete negotiated result" eliminating some or all of the Soviet missiles already in place.
The Soviet leader's proposal to freeze strategic offensive arms also treads a well-worn path that Reagan has spurned consistently. The U.S. position is that major reductions in such arms should be the central objective of the Geneva talks and that a freeze is a disadvantage to the United States.
Gorbachev's other proposal -- a moratorium on research, testing and deployment of "strike space arms" -- is aimed squarely at Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," plan. The halting of work on the ambitious U.S. antimissile space program is the key Soviet objective in the arms talks now under way.
Reagan has consistently refused to limit the research aspect of the program, and the U.S. negotiators in Geneva are reported to be unwilling to agree to new limits on development, testing or deployment.
The greatest concern among U.S. officials for many weeks has been that the Soviets would find ways to use the arms negotiations to "drive a wedge" between the United States and its European allies through some combination of offers regarding Euromissiles and the Star Wars plan.
Gorbachev's interview seems to give emphasis to the Euromissile moratorium, an approach that seems calculated to give new life to the peace movement in the Netherlands where the U.S. deployment is up for debate.
Gorbachev yesterday did not specifically tie his Euromissile moratorium to the Star Wars plan, as is being done in the Geneva negotiations. That link is expected to be made in public later, perhaps by some more dramatic offer to the Europeans that is conditional on a curb of the U.S. missile-defense program.
The initial cool response from the White House yesterday to Gorbachev's initiative is likely to be expanded by administration spokesmen today and in the coming days.