VIENNA, JUNE 27 -- The Soviet Union agreed today to rid itself of tens of thousands of battle tanks under an East-West plan to sharply reduce such equipment together with other armored vehicles stationed in Europe.
The accord was finalized after the Soviet delegation to the conventional arms talks here angered other negotiators by withholding consent on a technicality for nearly two weeks. It removes one of several remaining obstacles toward meeting a year-end deadline for completion of a treaty limiting the two sides' non-nuclear forces.
The plan to limit tanks and other armored vehicles represents what delegates call the treaty's "heart and soul" because it hampers both sides' ability to launch an offensive attack. The two sides agreed to the plan in principle on June 14, but that same day, Soviet representatives refused to grant final consent pending additional clarification of all equipment involved. Some Western negotiators felt this Soviet move violated the spirit of a pledge to accelerate the pace of the talks, although the Soviets stressed there was no fundamental disagreement.
The complex package, a compromise proposed by France and Poland to limit each side to 20,000 tanks and 18,000 armored infantry combat vehicles, also includes complex definitions and weight specifications for the equipment covered under the treaty. The Soviet delegation gave its consent after minor linguistic changes in the draft text were adopted at a session today.
The Soviet Union, estimated to hold overwhelming superiority with a total of about 55,000 battle tanks, would be required to destroy most of the multi-ton vehicles under the treaty as envisioned by North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. NATO would be obliged to reduce its current tank levels by about 3,000 -- a 15 percent cut -- to reach the 20,000 ceiling.
Some negotiators attributed the delay to conflicts between the Soviet military and the Foreign Ministry in Moscow and an "overload" of issues facing Kremlin decision-makers. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on Tuesday assailed military and conservative critics who challenged the Kremlin's response to last year's revolts in Eastern Europe.