The Kremlin can choose either to get tough, or to play a cool, waiting game, as it watches President-elect Ronald Reagan assemble his new team and his new policies.
Western eyes and ears here are strained to catch the first clues as to how the Kremlin will decide to try to influence the incoming administration.
First indirect contacts between Reagan and the Soviets could come soon. The man in line to be the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Charles Percy (R) of Illinois, is due to visit Moscow this month as a house guest of Ambassador Thomas Watson. The visit, arranged some time ago, could provide a channel for unofficial soundings to be exchanged.
Moreover, Brent Scowcroft, former White House national security aide under President Ford, is due here shortly with a delegation from the US United Nations Association. With him will be former GOP governor of Pennsylvania, William Scranton, and former State Department Soviet specialist, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who is close to Henry Kissinger.
Any of the three could act as a conduit for initial soundings by either Mr. Reagan or the Russians.
So far, Pravda, Izvestia, and the news agency Tass have taken a fairly restrained approach, trying to signal Mr. Reagan not to abandon arms talks and to be more forthcoming on the Middle East.
But the Soviets could decide to try to rush Mr. Reagan, to push him off balance or to bluff him, just as Nikita Khrushchev tried to do with John F. Kennedy in Vienna in 1961, over the issue of Berlin.
They could decide to stop dismantling older strategic weapons launchers as called for under SALT agreements so far, thus signaling a decision to break the gentlemen's agreement by which both sides have abided by SALT I and II even though the first has expired and the second lies unratified.
Moscow could take an even tougher line against allowing time for extended debate on human rights and Afghanistan at the Madrid security conference. This would be an effort to warn Mr. Reagan away from the kind of human-rights criticisms Mr. Carter made.
For the moment the Soviets will probably keep talking in Geneva about ways to limit medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe, though their dilemma there is that the Kremlin has insisted until now that nothing decided in Geneva can come into force until the SALT II treaty is ratified.
With Mr. Reagan opposed to SALT II, and ratification votes vanished from the newly conservative Senate, the current Geneva talks now become moot, unless both sides agree on new arms talks.
The Soviets are bound to resist this at first, just as they rejected Mr. Carter's new arms proposals early in his administration (in March 1977).
They could change their position -- but this could take months, and some Westerners here fear that during that time, the Kremlin would be sorely tempted to announce new arms programs, or to make tough speeches, to try to influence Mr. Reagan.
So far the press here still supports the SALT II treaty and gives no sign it understands that liberal pro-treaty senators have been defeated.
Pravda has criticized what it called "contradictory" news and "puzzling" statements during the campign. It has cited Mr. Reagan's remark during the televised debate that he opposes nuclear war and favors talks with the Soviets, adding that only time and "concrete deeds" would tell if that was merely rhetoric or a "sober" look ahead.
Izvestia commented that "the Soviet Union is for talks, not confrontation." It has said bluntly that if measures already worked out to limit the nuclear arms race are not put into operation, "irrevocable damage will be done to the cause of peace."
It is not expected here that the Soviets will change their public attitude in the next few weeks. They will prefer to wait and see how Mr. Reagan behaves and what messages it receives from him unofficially.
Pravda has cited some of the men around Reagan, seeing them as evidence of Mr. Reagan's respectability: William E. Simon, Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman, and Henry Kissinger.
On the Mideast, the Tass news agency said all Arabs were "profoundly" disappointed at Mr. Reagan's first press conference remark that the Palestine Liberation Organization was a "terrorist organization."
Reagan's stand, Tass said, was a source of "worry and disappointment" -- though it is also possible the Soviets are privately pleased to be able to go back to their Arab friends and argue that closeness with Moscow is doubly necessary now.