Gorbachev lauds Bush's weapons cuts Despite 'questions,' reciprocal actions by Soviets are likely


MOSCOW -- Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who went on national television last night to respond to President Bush's unilateral decision to reduce nuclear arms, praised the U.S. action but said it was too soon to spell out reciprocal cuts in the Soviet arsenal.

Mr. Gorbachev said that he had "many questions" about Mr. Bush's plan that needed to be answered. But eventual Soviet cutbacks in nuclear arms appeared to be almost inevitable.

In New York, Soviet Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin said, "These unilateral measures call for reciprocal actions on our part and will be fully supported by the Soviet Union."

In Russia, Boris N. Yeltsin, the republic's president and the most powerful politician in the country, urged Mr. Gorbachev to respond in kind to Mr. Bush's announcement.

In Europe, after an initial wave of euphoria over Mr. Bush's announcement, some leaders contended yesterday that the U.S. president had not gone far enough.

French President Francois Mitterrand said France would not reduce its independent nuclear arsenal until the United States and the Soviet Union cut deeper into theirs.

"Make a further effort, gentlemen," Mr. Mitterrand said, referring to Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev, "and we will be happy to join you around the table to discuss nuclear security in the world."

British Defense Secretary Tom King announced that Britain would destroy some of its older Lance short-range missile launchers and about 70 missiles in solidarity with the U.S. initiative.

But Mr. King warned that the Soviet Union was still "a very dangerous and unstable place" with large stocks of nuclear weapons in separatist republics.

Least impressed by the Bush measures was Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who said, "Large parts of this arsenal are both technically and tactically antiquated. It is to a large extent about weapons from the '50s and '60s, which lost their value a long time back. They no longer have military value."

But reactions generally were highly favorable.

"This is a historic day," said Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlueter.

"The government of Japan strongly welcomes this epoch-making and courageous initiative by President Bush," Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu said.

German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher described Mr. Bush's unilateral first step as "a historical decision."

"The best part," he said, "is that it isn't all being made conditional on long, drawn-out negotiations." There is "not the least doubt," Mr. Genscher said, that the Soviet Union will respond positively.

In Asia, where leaders have been saying for more than a year that the Cold War there is not over, public declarations of support had an undercurrent of misgivings.

Only a few months ago in South Korea, where the United States stores tactical nuclear weapons, President Roh Tae Woo was dismissing calls for the creation of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula as premature, saying it was something to discuss only after the hard-line Communist government in the North allowed international inspection of nuclear plants that might be close to producing weapons.

Nevertheless, Mr. Roh said yesterday that Mr. Bush's action was "an epoch-making step toward world peace."

Much of the favorable reaction singled out Mr. Bush for recognition. "It is an act of great imagination, vision and courage," Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke said.

Mr. Bush spoke to Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin by telephone Friday before going on U.S. television to outline his plan.

He said the United States would withdraw all short-range, or battlefield, nuclear arms, most of which are in Europe. Those weapons were intended for use against Soviet troops in Eastern Europe in the event of a general war, but ever since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, Soviet troops there have been pulling back to Soviet territory.

Mr. Bush also said the United States would eliminate nuclear cruise missiles from ships and submarines and would store the nuclear weapons that have been carried by strategic bombers.

Mr. Bush's announcement came without protracted negotiations or even a treaty, in apparent recognition that the post-coup Soviet Union is anything but a hostile power.

In acting unilaterally -- and first -- Mr. Bush gave Mr. Gorbachev the opportunity to cut his country's expensive arsenal without seeming to retreat from great-power status.

Even as Soviet republics spin off and some, such as the Ukraine, declare their desire to be rid of nuclear weapons, Mr. Gorbachev's government has made it clear that it does not intend to disarm totally.

Mr. Yeltsin has said that Russia would receive nuclear weapons from republics that don't want them.

Speaking on television last night, a relaxed Mr. Gorbachev raised two issues stemming from Mr. Bush's announcement.

The first concerns Britain and France and whether their nuclear weapons would also be cut. The second is Mr. Gorbachev's desire for a treaty banning nuclear testing.

Such a treaty, he said, would convince the world that "this was a real breakthrough." But Mr. Bush, he said, told him Friday that a test ban was not part of the U.S. plan.

Nevertheless, Mr. Gorbachev called Mr. Bush's announcement "very positive."

"It is still premature to assess the whole scope of these proposals," Mr. Gorbachev said. "It would be too hasty on our part and unconvincing for everyone. But I think we will balance the account."

Soviet military spending has mushroomed over the last 20 years and become a major strain on the economy. In the Leningrad region, for instance, 75 percent of all industrial laborers worked in defense plants until the government began retooling over the past year.

The nuclear weapons program was a major part of the military budget, and Mr. Gorbachev has been looking for ways to cut his arsenal for years.

At the end of July in Moscow, he and Mr. Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which cut strategic arms by 30 percent, back to the levels of 10 years previously, when the treaty negotiations began.

Until Aug. 21, the Soviet president had to step gingerly in taking on the huge Soviet military-industrial complex, but with the failure of the hard-line coup, that became easier.

With the Communist Party suspended and some of his chief conservative opponents imprisoned, Mr. Gorbachev has a freer hand in dealing with the military.

He consulted Friday with Marshal Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the new defense minister and a Yeltsin ally, and Vladimir Lobov, the new chief of staff, about Mr. Bush's cutbacks, and both men reportedly responded positively to the idea of further nuclear reductions.

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