The Soviet Union will not attempt to match the Reagan administration's costly space weapons program but will concentrate instead on building cheaper offensive nuclear missiles that could overwhelm an American space shield, one of the Soviet Union's highest ranking generals has asserted in an interview.
"We are not going to take the path that the U.S. administration is trying to force us onto," Col. Gen. Nikolai Chervov said in the interview here Friday. "We have made it clear that we will not ape the United States" in spending billions on a space weapons system.
In an essentially pessimistic assessment, Chervov suggested that the Soviets have concluded that the arms control process that has governed U.S.-Soviet relations for two decades is on the verge of collapse despite the resumption of negotiations between the two nations in Geneva last week.
Chervov is the equivalent of a four-star general in the United States and a senior department head on the Soviet general staff. He characterized his remarks as personal views, but he is a central figure in Soviet strategic policy-making, and his views are thought to represent those of the Soviet military establishment.
His remarks during an unusual two-hour conversation with two American journalists also provided an authoritative Soviet view of the negotiating deadlock in the Geneva talks, which cover space weapons, strategic nuclear missiles and intermediate-range rockets stationed in Europe.
Previous Soviet descriptions of the deadlock have been limited to general criticisms of the United States for allegedly refusing to discuss at all the space weapons program, sometimes described as "Star Wars." But Chervov said the U.S. negotiators were countering the Soviet Union's demand for a total ban on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) at Geneva by "proposing to us that we agree about some rules of conduct of the arms race in space, that is, what particular weapons shall be developed and at what time."
The Soviet Union "demands a complete ban on attack weapons in space. We want to prevent an arms race in space altogether. And we must ask what the United States is proposing to prevent this?"
The Soviet Union has mounted a major campaign to discredit SDI in recent months, accusing the United States of planning to put first-strike nuclear weapons into space. The U.S. has denied this, and Chervov's remarks evidently were intended to provide a comprehensive response to U.S. public statements. He reiterated the Soviet Union's willingness to cut its intercontinental missile force by 25 percent "or more" in return for a ban on the space weapons program and an equal cut in U.S. long-range missiles.
That proposal, which was voiced by the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a speech in Warsaw in late April, starts from the ceiling of 2,400 missile launchers permitted under the SALT II treaty, Chervov specified.
U.S. officials said the proposal had not been offered formally in Geneva during the first round of talks, which ended without any noticeable progress on April 23. It is not known if the Soviets have proposed it formally at this point in the second round.
Chervov responded to questions in a calm, resonant baritone that betrayed little anxiety about the space weapons program. He went to some lengths to establish at the beginning of the conversation that "the Soviet Union is not afraid of SDI. We are not afraid of some sort of technological breakthrough or that the United States will get a decisive advantage or superiority through SDI."
Chervov's comments seemed to suggest that the Soviets have reached certain basic decisions about how to proceed with their strategic programs in case the arms control process collapses.
Many of the points he made had been articulated in a more oblique form recently by the defense minister, Marshal Sergei Sokolov, and the chief of staff, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev. But Chervov was far more explicit.
The SDI concept, he predicted, "will be ignored" by the Soviets. To counter U.S. efforts in space, "we will have both an increase in offensive strategic weapons, and correspondingly we will take certain defensive measures."
By noting that building new types of offensive weapons to try to thwart the space shield will be "far cheaper, more economic" and by omitting any detailed discussion of the corresponding defensive measures, Chervov clearly established the Soviet priority in responding to SDI.
Testing of outer space weapons such as laser-beam and particle-ray devices intended to destroy missiles as they are launched "will be the cause of the breakdown of all treaties and agreements on arms control. SDI can only move us closer to nuclear war."
The Reagan administration has said that it is prepared to discuss space weapons at Geneva but that it is not prepared to foreclose the option of developing such weapons in the future. U.S. officials accuse the Soviets of having a secret program similar to SDI already in progress and of violating the terms of existing arms agreements.
On the other issues being discussed at Geneva, Chervov said that the Reagan administration's calling into question the continuing observance of the unratified SALT II agreement and of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed by both nations in 1972 "makes it difficult to predict what the future of arms control will be."
In discussing the negotiations aimed at curbing Soviet SS20 and U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles being stationed in Europe, Chervov called attention to a statement last week by Gorbachev repeating that the Soviets have instituted a moratorium on SS20 deployment until November. A U.S. response to the moratorium in Europe would lead to the Soviets "in about one or two months in Geneva putting specific figures on the table for limits to both explosive charges, including missile warheads and bombs and means of delivery" for this type of weapon, he said.
Chervov placed heavy emphasis on what he described as the Reagan administration's refusal to adopt the same negotiating principles of "equality and equal security" that he said the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations had acknowledged for the Soviet Union in their arms control agreements.
"The Reagan administration told us directly that it refuses to adhere to this principle. Instead it is proposing to us the principle of parity between the Soviet Union and the United States" in Europe without taking into account the French and British nuclear forces that the Soviets insist on counting as targeted against them.
"The administration is explaining to us that this means the United States is going to have as many rockets in Europe as does the Soviet Union in the European part" of Russia," he said.
But the United States insists that "this principle applies only to the Eastern Hemisphere. If one were to follow logic, this should apply to both hemispheres. But no, they tell us the Western Hemisphere is America's domain, is taboo" for the Soviet Union. "We cannot accept this principle."