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Speculating on the Soviet outlook as Presidents Bush and Gorbachev begin their summit meeting, a senior American official pointed to the uncertainties that go with the changing face of Europe.

Moscow, the guessing goes, may be trying to appraise and foresee the military future in central Europe before taking the next steps on a conventional weapons treaty to deal with that future and perhaps to seal it.Change is a constant for American defense planners, too. One said that as they work on remodeling the military, there is a sense of satisfaction in the savings that make up the peace dividend - and a nagging concern that there may still be hidden dangers, that cuts could risk too much.

This summit is different than any before, another administration official said, because "the constraints that have structured and defined the relationship for 45 years are evaporating."

Not only are the shackles of the Cold War falling away, so are the certainties.

That shows in the slowed, perhaps stalled negotiations for a treaty to cut conventional forces, troops, tanks and other weapons, in Europe. The issue is on President Bush's agenda for discussion at the summit, although not for settlement there. The negotiations are between the Western and Eastern military alliances, NATO and the collapsing Warsaw Pact.

"In our view, it is important than an agreement on conventional forces in Europe be signed this year, locking in military changes consistent with the political realities, and in effect, changing the map of Europe," Secretary of State James A. Baker III told a pre-summit news conference.

Baker said the administration hopes summit discussion between the two presidents will give new impetus to those negotiations.

The forerunner to the current conventional arms talks was something akin to a permanent debate forum, convened off and on for 17 years, and getting nowhere. The talks were revived in 1989 after Gorbachev and Bush issued their rival proposals for mutual cuts in troops and weapons. Bush said there should be a deal this year, with actual reductions by 1992 or 1993 at the latest. Then came the upheaval in Eastern Europe, replacing the head of every Warsaw Pact government except Gorbachev himself.

The new look makes cuts inevitable. Soviet troops are pulling out of old satellite states; Czechoslovakia and Hungary want them out by the middle of next year. American manpower in Europe certainly will shrink well below the scaled-back levels Bush already has proposed: 275,000 a year ago, trimmed to 225,000 last December.

At the same time, those developments make a conventional forces treaty all the more important as a guarantee of long-term Soviet intent to stay on the Gorbachev course, withdrawing from Eastern Europe for good. There still are more than 360,000 Soviet troops in East Germany.

An East-West treaty would cover that.

One administration official noted that a conventional force agreement in which the Soviets destroy part of their force of tanks is far more secure than a situation in which they simply move the weapons back beyond their own borders.

But with Germany about to be reunified on Western terms, Moscow may want a clearer vision of the future in central Europe before adding it to a troop and weapons cut treaty.

"I don't get the feeling that they are opposed to CFE agreements," Bush told a news conference last week. "I do think, for complicated reasons involving Eastern Europe, that . . . the talks haven't gone as far or as fast as I would like."

A senior administration official, at one in a series of White House summit briefings conducted under rules of anonymity, said the uncertainties of the immediate future are a likely reason for the slowdown. He said that with "the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact as a military entity and, indeed with the pull-back and the reductions the Soviets themselves will be facing . . . they are trying to assess the implications of German unification for the security picture in Europe down the road."

The official said U.S. negotiators have told the Soviet side that "we think a united Germany that's a full partner in NATO is one of the best guarantors of stability in Europe."

That will be hard to sell to Gorbachev, who has said that Western insistence on keeping Germany in NATO could stand in the way of a conventional force agreement. But the Soviets also have said there are ways around the problem, and that they want an agreement before the end of this year.

A push at the summit could make that happen.