WASHINGTON -- Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev chose his first American television interview to acknowledge that Russian researchers are working just like the United States to develop a 'Star Wars' type of missile defense.
The Kremlin chief nonetheless asserted in the interview broadcast Monday that there are 'real prospects' for progress toward reducing longer-range nuclear arsenals in his talks with President Reagan next week in Washington -- a summit in which they expect to sign a treaty eliminating intermediate-range missiles.
Gorbachev, speaking for an hour with NBC News, provided perhaps the clearest evidence yet to support U.S. statements that the Soviet Union is working hard on a project akin to 'Star Wars,' the Strategic Defense Initiative.
He insisted his government never would deploy a matching anti-missile system but acknowledged, 'Practically, the Soviet Union is doing all that the United States is doing, and I guess we are engaged in research -- basic research -- which relates to those aspects which are covered by the SDI.'
Gorbachev urged the United States to agree not to deploy SDI weaponry but he warned the Kremlin 'will find a response' if that occurs.
In the animated, historic interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw, Gorbachev also greeted the American people, thanking them for the more than 80,000 letters he said he has received since plans were announced for the Dec. 8-10 summit.
Senate Democratic leader Robert Byrd said he thought the interview showed Gorbachev to be a 'very different kind of leader -- very fluent, very aggressive, very smart.'
But Byrd, speaking to reporters before the start of today's Senate session, cautioned that Gorbachev answered the questions only on his terms. 'He sets up his own set of facts and definitions,' the senator from West Virginia said.
On regional issues around the world, Gorbachev said he cannot believe that Reagan is 'serious' when it proclaims the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua to be a national security threat to the United States.
'This is the back yard of Latin America,' the Soviet said. 'Surely Americans understand that Nicaragua cannot ... pose a threat to the United States.'
Gorbachev was at his most energetic when attacking U.S. policy, chiefly when he was asked why Soviet citizens are not allowed to leave their nation freely.
He responded by charging that Americans suffer from a lack of guaranteed economic rights -- the defense he is expected to present when pressed about human rights at his third meeting with Reagan. He also blamed the West for the desire of Soviets to emigrate, accusing outsiders of stirring up discontent in an attempt to attract talented Russian citizens elsewhere.
Appearing well-briefed, Gorbachev fielded most questions with ease, though he repeatedly struck conservative notes, emphasizing his determination to strengthen rather than to weaken the Communist Party's role in his country.
The broadcast was filmed in the Kremlin Saturday, and when asked to react, a senior Reagan administration said Gorbachev did not appear to break any new ground in the interview.
Reagan repeatedly has said he will not use SDI as a bargaining chip with the Soviets, and Gorbachev appeared willing to skirt that dispute in the pending talks, terming the American project 'not a subject for negotiations.'
However, he said, he plans to discuss SDI with Reagan in the context of demanding 'strict compliance' by America with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limits development of such a space-based missile defense.
'In the degree that SDI does not run counter to the ABM treaty, let America act, let America indulge in research,' Gorbachev said. 'We believe it is possible to do a lot of work with this present administration ... so that we could make headway on (the) major direction in the area of arms control.'
What that means, Gorbachev said, is that there are 'real prospects ahead of us' to cut longer-range strategic missiles that 'constitute the very core of Soviet-American relations.'
'If we reduce our medium-range missiles, our shorter-range missiles,' he explained, 'and if we agree at the first stage to make 50 percent cuts in our strategic offensive arms and then to go on and to fully eliminate nuclear weapons, then the question does arise: Why, what is SDI for? And what is the militarization of outer space for?'