OTTAWA - The Soviet Union has abandoned its demand for equal U.S. and Soviet troop levels in Europe and accepted President Bush's proposal that the United States be allowed to maintain a 30,000-soldier advantage. The Soviet concession Tuesday came four days after President Mikhail Gorbachev informed Secretary of State James Baker during talks in Moscow that he would not accept a troop proposal by Bush.
Bush's plan called for the countries to reduce their troops in Central Europe to 195,000 each, but urged that the United States be allowed to maintain an additional 30,000 men on the periphery of Europe, in England, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey.
The Soviet decision to back down was conveyed to Baker Tuesday in talks with Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
Both men were in Ottawa for NATO and Warsaw Pact negotiations on an "open skies" treaty, which would allow Eastern and Western countries to conduct surveillance flights over each other's territory.
In announcing the troop accord, Canadian Foreign Minister Joe Clark, who is officiating at the talks, said, "The agreement on manpower overcomes one of the most important obstacles" to a treaty reducing conventional forces in Europe, "and provides additional impetus to reach an agreement this year."
The Soviet concession was as important politically as it was militarily. Arms-control agreements are usually based on parity, be it in troops, tanks, aircraft or nuclear weapons.
But on this troop question, Bush deliberately outlined his proposal, included in his State of the Union message on Jan. 31, to give the United States a slight advantage.
That was intended to underscore the U.S. view that while the Soviet forces in Europe are there by occupation, the U.S. troops are there by invitation.
The fact that the Soviets have accepted an asymmetrical arrangement was a virtual admission that their forces were in fact an army of occupation.
The decision also amounted to a tacit acceptance that with all the changes in Eastern Europe in the last year, Moscow simply could not maintain equal levels with the Americans, even if it wanted to.
Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia have already asked the Soviets to remove their forces, roughly 560,000 troops in all of Eastern Europe.
The largest share of Soviet troops, 400,000 of them, are based in East Germany. With East and West Germany moving closer to unification, as agreed here Tuesday, Moscow apparently recognized that in the coming years even its troop presence there may be in jeopardy.
U.S. officials said the United States made no major concessions to Moscow to win its approval other than to agree that the 30,000-troop advantage that the United States would maintain would be a firm cap and not, as the president initially suggested, a unilateral limit that Washington could change at any time.
The short statement announcing the agreement reads as follows: "The United States and the Soviet Union shall each station no more than 195,000 ground and air personnel on foreign territory in Europe, in the central zone.
"This would also constitute the total ceiling on Soviet troops stationed on foreign territory in Europe. In addition, the United States agrees that it will station no more than 30,000 troops on foreign territory in Europe outside of the central zone.
"The central zone referred to above is the zone proposed by the U.S. president in the specific context of his manpower initiative on Jan. 31, 1990."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn said at a news conference the agreement was particularly important for Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which have formally asked the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces from their territory.
"It provides an institutional backing for withdrawing Soviet forces from our countries," he said.
The important thing, said a senior U.S. arms-control negotiator, is that "the Soviets accepted asymmetry."
The negotiator indicated that other important issues need to be resolved before a conventional arms treaty can be signed - something that both Bush and Gorbachev have said they hope to see done by the end of the year.
These issues include differences between the West and the Soviet bloc over how to limit aircraft, tanks and helicopters.
As soon as Secretary Baker left Moscow on Friday, he began consulting by telephone with his NATO allies on what they thought of the counterproposal that Gorbachev had put to him during their four hours of discussions in the Kremlin.
The Soviet leader had said that while he accepted Bush's idea of lowering troop levels in Europe beyond those levels initially discussed in the conventional arms talks when they opened last year, this reduction would have to be done on an equal basis.
Gorbachev said the Soviets were prepared to go down to either 195,000 men or 225,000 men, but not 225,000 for the United States and 195,000 for the Soviet Union.
On Monday, Bush held a news conference in which he said that he was not backing down from his proposal, or his insistence on asymmetry. The ball, the president indicated, was in Moscow's court.
While it is not clear whether all the NATO allies supported the United States, it is known that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain felt strongly that Washington should hold to its position, particularly since many of the 30,000 additional men will be on British soil.
The British are also the leading advocates of a continued U.S. presence in Europe, primarily to contain a reunified Germany.
U.S. officials said that Baker and Shevardnadze, who is apparently in contact with Gorbachev in Moscow, nailed down the agreement, and it was hastily announced at a news conference.
Soviet officials were looking rather grim after their concession was disclosed, and when a Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman was approached for a comment, he turned on his heels and said brusquely, "Sorry, I'm leaving."
Shevardnadze, speaking to reporters after the announcement, denied that the Soviets made real concessions. Asked why only a few days after Gorbachev had spurned Baker's proposal, Moscow was now accepting it Tuesday, Shevardnadze said, "No, he did not say he would not agree.
What he said was that our positions had moved closer together."
When reporters insisted that the positions had not in fact moved closer together, but that the Soviets had accepted exactly what the president initially proposed, Shevardnadze said, "Well, this is practically" what the Soviets had in mind.
The concession by Moscow is actually the latest in what has become a pattern over the last two years in the arms-control negotiations.
During Baker's talks in Moscow last week, the Soviets also came toward the U.S. positions in several categories in the strategic arms limitation negotiations. The Soviets accepted an U.S. framework for limiting sea launched cruise missiles, as well as air-launched cruise missiles.