The Soviet Union has proposed a temporary freeze on U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range missiles in an attempt to separate those controversial nuclear weapons from strategic missile and space talks under way between the superpowers in Geneva, presidential adviser Paul H. Nitze disclosed yesterday.
The Soviet proposal was presented last week to U.S. negotiators in Geneva and has piqued the interest of American strategists who believe it "certainly makes it look like the Soviets want a deal," as one arms control official put it.
Nitze said the proposal also would freeze the number of Soviet SS20 intermediate-range missiles deployed in Asia.
That has been a persistent sticking point in previous negotiations, with the United States arguing that without such an agreement Moscow could simply move its European missiles beyond the Ural Mountains, and move them back to threaten Europe during a crisis.
However, Nitze and other U.S. officials cautioned that the proposal has major flaws from the U.S. perspective because it also calls for subsequent reductions in U.S. intermediate missiles to allow Moscow compensation for British and French nuclear forces, a position that has been unacceptable to the United States.
One top U.S. strategist dismissed the proposal as "a patch-up" job by the Soviets hoping to keep Washington on the defensive in arms control issues during the final weeks before next month's summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In a breakfast meeting with reporters, Nitze described the Soviet offer as "quite a difference from their initial formula" on intermediate-range missiles because, unlike previous proposals, it would allow the United States to keep more than 200 missiles now deployed in Western Europe -- at least for the time being.
By offering to isolate talks on the superpowers' intermediate nuclear forces (INF), the Soviets appear to be trying to narrow the Geneva arms discussions to the already complex issues of longer-range strategic weapons and space weapons, officials added.
The Soviet offer represents the fourth initiative in the past six months by Gorbachev on the persistent INF problem. These weapons, which have a shorter range than the ocean-spanning strategic missiles each superpower has, have triggered a steady series of diplomatic reverses for Moscow since 1979, when NATO first agreed to the deployment of U.S. Pershing II and ground-based cruise missiles in Europe.
For four years, Soviet leaders threatened and pleaded with Western Europeans to prevent U.S. deployment of the weapons that subsequently were first installed in 1983.
Moscow's failure to block deployment has been considered a major setback to Soviet foreign policy and one that Gorbachev seems determined to reverse.
Total U.S. and Soviet INF missiles in Europe may be nearly equal, a parity sought by the United States as an interim position to its ultimate goal of eliminating both sides' weapons.
However, the Soviet intermediate-range SS20 missile has three warheads, while the U.S. missiles have one each, and Washington has resisted any freeze based solely on launchers, according to administration sources.
Last April, in his first major statement after becoming Soviet leader, Gorbachev announced a "unilateral freeze" on further deployments of SS20s and called on the United States to "display restraint" in its deployments. He said the freeze would last until Nov. 1, with continuation dependent on whether the United States halted its deployments. U.S. missiles continued to go into Europe.
Then, in an Oct. 7 speech to the French parliament, Gorbachev scuttled his unilateral freeze initiative of April and announced that Moscow would actually reduce the number of its SS20s.
At the same time, he proposed separate talks between Moscow and the British and French, suggesting for the first time that an INF agreement could be reached "outside of direct connection with the problem of space and strategic arms."
At the present, the United States has deployed about 228 medium-range missiles in Western Europe -- 120 ground-based cruise missiles and almost all of 108 Pershing II missiles.
The French and British also have more than 100 independently controlled missiles.
The Soviets have 441 SS20 intermediate-range missiles deployed throughout their country. According to Gorbachev, however, the Soviet Union will reduce the number capable of reaching Europe to 243 in the next two months.
About 117 SS20s are deployed in the East, according to Defense Department sources.