Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, seizing the diplomatic offensive, has unveiled specific proposals for new arms-control accords with the Reagan administration and its Western allies.
The stated bid to "give detente second wind" was wedded to an acknowledgment by Mr. Brezhnev that heightened East-West tension was further straining a Soviet economy facing mismanagement, inefficiency, and "finite" resources.
Implicit in Mr. Brezhnev's move, which came in a lengthy keynote report Feb. 23 to the congress of the Soviet Communist Party, seems to be an attempt to skirt what he termed the "bellicose" new leadership in Washington and play rather to a West European audience.
The Soviet leader suggested a summit meeting with Mr. Reagan. But more important in the long run, many diplomats here suspected, was what one envoy described as "the surprisingly substantive" negotiating ideas that went along with the summit offer.
The Soviet President also held firm on key issues seen by Washington as obstacles to improved superpower relations.
He shrugged off charges that Moscow was abetting "international terrorism."
He made it clear Soviet troops were not on the verge of packing up their kit bags and marching home from Afghanistan.
He left little doubt the Soviet Union would continue to back allied governments, leftists, and guerrilla forces in the third world.
He signaled that the USSR and other Warsaw Pact nations might yet intervene directly in Poland, although he indicated Moscow still apparently supports the Polish leadership's bid to put its own house in order.
And he made it clear Moscow would demand specific concessions from Washington in any reopened strategic arms limitation (SALT) talks.
A senior Soviet official, briefing reporters after Mr. Brezhnev's address, said the President did not mean to suggest he was ready to proceed with a SALT III pact while SALT II remained unratified by the US Senate. But it was not immediately clear that this would exclude simultaneous ratification, or some other compromise formula.
Indeed, the burly Soviet President seemed to suggest quite the opposite.
In a sense, Mr. Brezhnev may be calling Mr. Reagan's bluff.
Senior US officials have been saying the new administration has nothing against sitting down for new talks with the Soviets, but only if there were something to talk about.
Mr. Brezhnev's reply: Let's sit down right now. There are things to talk about.
"We are prepared," he said, "to continue the relevant [SALT] negotiations without delay, preserving all the positive elements so far achieved in this area."
He specifically suggested limits on new US submarines armed with Trident missiles, in exchange for limitations on "similar ones" by the USSR.
In a departure from normal practice taken by some Western diplomats as underscoring the intended seriousness of the proposal, Mr. Brezhnev even mentioned the Soviet submarine by its NATO code name.
Mr. Brezhnev also moved to tackle US objections to talking about a recent Soviet proposal for superpower detente in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean regions. Washington feels Soviet occupation of Afghanistan should be on the agenda for any such discussions.
Although holding firm on backing for the Soviet-installed Afghan government and repeating allegations that Moscow is not the country that is really meddling there, Mr. Brezhnev did say: "We do not object to . . . international aspects of the Afghan problem . . . being discussed together with questions of Persian Gulf security."
Accusing the new Reagan administration of "candidly bellicose calls and statements," Mr. Brezhnev added: "We would like to hope, however, that those who shape United States policy today will ultimately manage to see things in a more realistic light."
Still, the Soviet leaders main pitch seemed to be toward Western Europe.
He took a carrot-and-stick approach. Mr. Brezhnev bluntly warned West European countries against stationing US nuclear missiles on their soil, as agreed with the Carter administration.
But in a move surprising both US and other foreign diplomats here, Mr. Brezhnev offered qualified acceptance of a French proposal before the current East-Week talks on detente in Madrid.
The French want so-called confidence- building measures -- such as advance notification of military maneuvers -- extended to the European portion of the Soviet Union, and not applied only to Eastern Europe.
Mr. Brezhnev accepted this, but added the condition that "Western states, too , extend the confidence zone accordingly."
Diplomats here took this to mean the Soviets might ask for the measures to be applied on parts of American territory.
Finally, Mr. Brezhnev went public with a call for a mutual freeze on deploying medium- range nuclear missiles in Europe -- including US "forward-based nuclear weapons" there.
The proposal was understood to have been made privately in earlier talks with the American in Geneva.
The decision to put it on the record was seen here as a clear reflection of Soviet strategy toward the Europeans -- based on the assumption that countries like West Germany and France have a far more immediate stake in reviving detente with the Soviets, and can be counted on to pressure Mr. Reagan in that direction.
The Brezhnev policy statement came against a background of renewed speculation on the Soviet President's health -- fueled by the fact the official television coverage abruptly cut from live transmission of the speech only minutes after it began.
Diplomats suggested that the Soviets might have been concerned that Mr. Brezhnev would show signs of infirmity or fatigue during the address.
Soviet officials promptly denied suggestions that someone else had read the bulk of the Brezhnev report to the congress.
Initial indications from foreign communists who attended the session jibed with official version: that Mr. Brezhnev, with two breaks, had read the entire 3 hour and 40 minute address.