Differing accounts by Moscow and Washington of a meeting last month to address the March 24 slaying of an American officer by a Soviet soldier in East Germany has heightened U.S.-Soviet tensions, renewed disputes over the events surrounding the shooting and led to a dispute within the Reagan administration about how to resolve the incident.
In the first high-level U.S.-Soviet encounter since the slaying of Army Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr., Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko are expected to address the lingering disagreements when they meet in Vienna today.
Besides the dispute with the Soviets, the Nicholson case has sparked a feud within the administration over whether the United States should have added demands for compensation and an apology to the Nicholson family to the list of demands made at an April 12 meeting in Potsdam, East Germany, during which U.S. and Soviet military commanders discussed the affair.
The Nicholson case continues to fuel a variety of U.S. protests. Because of the incident, the United States took no official part in commemorating the World War II joining of U.S. and Soviet armies at the Elbe River 40 years ago. The U.S. ambassador boycotted the Soviet V-E Day parade in Moscow, and sources here say the Reagan administration is also now "disinclined" to take part in a possible 10th anniversary celebration of the Apollo-Soyuz joint space mission.
Judging from public statements by both sides, and recent interviews, it appears that both sides may have issued incomplete statements about the outcome of the Potsdam meeting.
The controversy centers around an April 16 State Department statement that the U.S. side "obtained agreement from the Soviets that they will not permit use of force or weapons against the members of our U.S. military liaison mission in the future."
But on April 22, the Soviet Union issued a statement that, while not specifically denying the State Department account, drew a distinction between use of force against military liaison personnel -- which the Soviets acknowledged is not permitted -- and permissible use of force against what the Soviets describe as an "unknown intruder."
The Soviet statement, released through the embassy in Washington, said that the "completely lawful" actions taken by the Soviet sentry were "not taken against a member of the U.S. military mission . . . but against an unknown intruder." A Soviet Embassy official explained that in Potsdam the Soviet representative, Gen. Mikhail Zaitsev, made clear that force would not be barred against "unknown intruders," but would be barred against U.S. liaison personnel.
But the U.S. rejects that explanation. A State Department official said, "We would never have left that meeting leaving open that kind of loophole." The official said the Soviets agreed to bar the use of force against members of the military liaison mission. Both sides have such missions in East and West Germany, but the Soviets say Nicholson was on a spying mission in a restricted area.
U.S. officials admit, however, that the initial State Department statement of April 16 about the Potsdam meeting was incomplete.
The original U.S. statement said that the Soviets "agreed to refer our demand for an apology and compensation for the Nicholson family to higher authority." A U.S. official said last week that this was factual but that Zaitsev also said that the Soviets do not accept any responsibility for the shooting or the requirement for compensation and sees no need for apology. That part of his statement was not reported by the State Department.
In first announcing on April 15 that Gen. Glenn K. Otis and Zaitsev had met to discuss the Nicholson slaying, the State Department, citing a policy of "confidentiality," declined to comment on the substance or results of the meeting. But one day later, following an interagency meeting that included representatives of the White House and departments of State and Defense, the controversial April 16 statement was released.
U.S. officials say that the issue of compensation and apology first was discussed when Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who had been in Europe, reacted negatively upon his return to what one called "the conciliatory tone" of language that had been worked out by an interagency committee to prevent subsequent episodes. The agreed-upon approach was announced by Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin and a U.S. State Department official on March 30, the day Weinberger returned.
After their initial discussion, days after the Nicholson shooting, Dobrynin and Secretary of State Shultz expressed satisfaction with the outline for discussing ways to prevent incidents like the Nicholson shooting, including the proposed discussion of the issue by Soviet and U.S. military leaders.
Weinberger, upon his return, demanded that the Soviets apologize to the Nicholson family and provide compensation as conditions for Washington to pursue talks on preventive measures. U.S. officials say that intense debate within the administration on this point delayed the Otis-Zaitev meeting for nearly two weeks.
One U.S. official added that in prior instructions sent to Otis, apology and compensation were not specified as prerequisites to the Potsdam meeting.
Six days after the State Department statement, the Soviets reacted by saying the Americans presented the Potsdam results "in a distorted light" and as an "attempt to sow confusion."
"What really seemed to irritate the Soviets," said a U.S. official, "was the part of the statement relating to apology and compensation." He added: "If it had not been for that we would probably not have this issue on our hands."
The dispute over the U.S. assessment of the Potsdam meeting also has led to renewed disagreements between Moscow and Washington about the events surrounding the Nicholson slaying.
Speaking in Torgau, East Germany, shortly after the dispute broke out, Zaitsev reportedly rejected U.S. assertions that Nicholson lay dying for nearly half an hour while the Soviets refused him medical aid. Nicholson died "almost immediately," the London Daily Telegraph quoted Zaitsev as saying.
Zaitsev also reportedly repeated that Nicholson was on a spying mission in a restricted zone when he was shot. He said the Soviets have film to back their position. But the film has not been made available to the public, nor has the Nicholson case been presented in the Soviet press.
The United States asserts that Nicholson was acting legally when he was shot and maintains that Nicholson was refused medical aid.
The only apparent American witness to the incident, Staff Sgt. Jessie Schatz, is "not available for comment," U.S. officials here said.