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Bush rebuffs Gorbachev on troop levels

WASHINGTON - President Bush rebuffed a proposal by President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union to set equal limits on U.S. and Soviet troops in Europe, insisting that U.S. soldiers are needed in Europe as "a stabilizing factor" even if Moscow withdraws its forces from the Eastern European nations. Bush told a news conference that he would hold to his proposal that Washington keep 30,000 more troops in all of Europe than the Soviet Union.

The president said his plan would establish that there was no link between the need for a large U.S. military presence in Europe and the deployment of Soviet forces in Eastern Europe.

"We're going to stay with our proposal because we don't see this linkage to that degree," Bush said. "We've got a big ocean between us and Western Europe."

Bush's remarks were the first official U.S. reply to Gorbachev's troop reduction plan, presented last week in Moscow.

The Soviet leader's plan came in response to an offer by Bush in his State of the Union message last month that Washington and Moscow cut their troops in Central Europe to 195,000 while allowing the United States to base 30,000 additional troops elsewhere in Europe.

Gorbachev, rejecting the U.S. troop advantage, proposed an equal ceiling for U.S. and Soviet troops in all of Europe of either 195,000 or 225,000.

In explaining his position, Bush said it was important to maintain a sizable U.S. military force in Europe as "a stabilizing presence" at a time of tumultuous change there, including the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern European nations and worries across the continent about a newly unified and resurgent Germany.

"Our troops are wanted by the free world and I suspect - can't prove it - that some Warsaw Pact countries today would see us not as a threatening presence but as a stabilizing presence," Bush said.

A senior administration official said the White House was determined to establish that the U.S. military troop presence in Europe was not justified solely by Soviet force levels in Eastern European nations and complained that Gorbachev's insistence on parity in U.S. and Soviet troop levels undercut this principle.

In military terms, the U.S. view is that even if Moscow withdraws all its forces from the Eastern European nations, its troops will still be close to Western Europe and a large army could be sent there if war broke out.

Bush said the dispute over troop cuts was not insurmountable.

Nonetheless, by rebuffing Gorbachev's proposal at the news conference, Bush accentuated differences between the two sides.

Bush's comments came as Secretary of State James Baker criticized Moscow for taking what he said was an inflexible position on reducing aircraft at the conventional arms talks in Europe.

"So far, the Soviet Union has not responded to our effort to close this issue," Baker said in a speech in Ottawa, where Western and Eastern bloc foreign ministers are meeting.

"Indeed, its position sets a ceiling that would require the West to add about 2,000 new NATO aircraft in order to reach equality, hardly a step toward arms reduction."

The continuing U.S.-Soviet disputes over troops and aircraft threaten to slow down progress toward a conventional arms agreement, which U.S. officials want to conclude this year to provide a framework for the verifiable withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern European nations.

A senior U.S. official in Ottawa warned that if the Soviets were not more flexible it might be necessary to leave aircraft out of the agreement. Bush agreed to include aircraft in the negotiations last year in response to Soviet demands.

Bush began his news conference by reading a statement commending Gorbachev for "moving the Soviet political system toward pluralism and genuine respect for the views of the Soviet electorate."

Bush said the talks between Baker and Soviet leaders last week in Moscow on arms control and regional issues had been largely successful and predicted that a planned June meeting with Gorbachev in Washington would be a "major success."

Bush praised Gorbachev for saying that decisions on German unification should be made by the German people. The president strongly restated the U.S. insistence that a unified Germany be part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), though he suggested that there could be a ban on the deployment of NATO forces on what is now East German territory.

"There's some flexibility on deployment of NATO forces into Eastern Europe," Bush said. "Nobody wants to threaten the Soviet Union."

By praising Gorbachev's flexibility on German unification, Bush appeared to suggest that Moscow might drop its insistence that a reunified Germany be neutral.

But Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze said in Ottawa that the proposal for including a reunified Germany in NATO with measures to demilitarize East German territory was not something that the Soviets would accept.

And in Moscow, Aleksandr Yakovlev, a top Soviet official, was quoted by Moscow radio as saying, "The Soviet troops will not leave a reunified Germany if the military units of the Western countries remain there."

Bush's remarks leave the two sides at odds over troop cuts, despite some important Soviet concessions made at last week's meeting between Baker and Soviet leaders.

A senior Bush administration official said Washington was willing to consider a political declaration but there is no link between the two sides' troop levels.