MOSCOW, JULY 23 -- Mikhail Gorbachev's surprise move to break the negotiating deadlock that had developed around Soviet and American medium-range missiles is the diplomatic equivalent of a three-cushion shot in billiards.
His first target is Asia, where he clearly hopes that his carefully packaged concession of giving up 100 SS20 warheads that the Soviet Union had previously insisted it had to station in Asia will rally public opinion to his side.
The Gorbachev offer to eliminate the SS20s and about 40 shorter range SS12 nuclear systems stationed in Asia is also intended to get U.S.-Soviet relations rolling again on a positive track after a period of stagnation.
The most distant, but still important target of Gorbachev's skillful move would be West Germany, host of 72 Pershing IA shorter-range nuclear missiles that the Soviets have now clearly identified as the major impediment, in their view, to a global accord eliminating several thousand nuclear warheads.
Throughout the comments made in an interview published here last night, Gorbachev was again portraying himself as a man willing to give up some Soviet military advantage in order to make gains in the court of world public opinion.
To underline his bid for Asian support for his arms control proposals, Gorbachev unveiled his latest surprise offer in an interview with the Indonesian newspaper Merdeka. He emphasized that he was announcing his willingness to take out the 100 SS20 warheads "to accommodate the Asian countries and take into account their concerns."
He also noted that he was dropping his previous demands that such a concession be matched by U.S. steps to reduce its "nuclear presence in Korea, the Philippines, on Diego Garcia," an Indian Ocean island where the United States has an air and naval facility.
Indonesia is a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and a country in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists were slaughtered when the present government took power in 1965. In his interview, Gorbachev extended an invitation to Indonesian President Suharto to visit the Soviet Union.
Senior Soviet officials speaking at a press conference today echoed the Soviet party leader's emphasis on the importance of Asian public opinion.
Asked why the Soviets had been willing to drop their previous demand that U.S. nuclear-capable aircraft in Japan be included in any deal that eliminated their Asian SS20s, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev responded: "If the Soviet Union displays good will and makes these steps, we expect that Japan will appreciate this and take steps accordingly."
In addition to making what he called "a global double zero" offer to eliminate all Soviet medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles from Asia and Europe, Gorbachev also called for a Soviet-U.S. freeze on the number of aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons stationed in Asia, reductions in the superpower fleets in Asian waters and wide-ranging restrictions on submarine and antisubmarine warfare capabilities.
As its part of the "global double zero," the United States would have to agree not to deploy 100 medium-range missiles that Washington has reserved the right to put in Alaska to match the 100 Soviet SS20 warheads, Gorbachev stated explicitly.
He did not address the issue of the 72 Pershing IAs in the interview. But today, Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov and Akhromeyev told reporters that the United States would have to withdraw the U.S.-owned nuclear warheads from these missiles if it wanted a "global double zero" accord.
The United States refuses this demand, saying it cannot break its agreement with West Germany on the missiles for the sake of the broader treaty. The United States is also reluctant to be seen pressing West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on this issue.
Bonn's coalition government has already been shaken by disagreement between Defense Minister Manfred Woerner, who has opposed Gorbachev's "double zero" proposal all along, and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who has favored it.
Genscher is reliably reported to have doubts about the wisdom of turning down a true "global double zero" in order to save the aging Pershing IAs, which have a range of up to 460 miles, and which are due to be withdrawn from service in two years.
U.S. diplomats fear Gorbachev may be trying to provoke another major row in the Bonn government and to pick up support in German public opinion.
It is not clear that Moscow will allow the missile treaty and the summit that would follow to be undermined by the obsolescent Pershing IAs, western diplomats here say, despite the strong statements to that effect here yesterday by Soviet officials.
Some U.S. officials believe that the Soviets' real concern is about the modernization of these missiles rather than the Pershing IAs themselves.
The effect of Gorbachev's unveiling a seemingly uniform prohibition on all missiles with a range between 300 and 3,000 miles may be to simplify the modernization issue, a U.S. diplomat here said today, indicating this would preclude U.S. conversion of the Pershing II missiles now in West Germany into a shorter-range vehicle to replace the Pershing IA.
This single-staged, modernized rocket would be called the Pershing IB, but its range, which experts say would likely be slightly higher than that of the Pershing IA, would fall in the band of shorter-range missiles to be banned under a "global double zero."
The Soviets have hinted that Moscow would be willing to accept a U.S. commitment that there will be no modernization of the IA rockets as the key to getting a U.S.-Soviet treaty, according to U.S. officials in Washington.
This would leave Gorbachev in the position of once again taking public opinion gains, by pointing out that he gave up all of his medium- and shorter-range rockets, while the United States and West Germany insisted on keeping 72 of theirs. The impact of such a stance on West German opinion in particular would be hard to predict, diplomats here say.