There are some signs of progress on the periphery of the US-Soviet relationship. The long-term grain agreement was successfully negotiated. In Madrid, after months of bitter polemics, the European security and cooperation conference participants, including America and Russia, managed to work out a compromise document. The Soviets hint that by the end of the year they may release some dissidents (no big names, yet). The administration meanwhile is considering lifting sanctions on supplying the USSR with oil and gas equipment imposed by President Jimmy Carter in response to an imprisonment of two leading critics of the Soviet regime. And - to manifest a desire to improve its image in the United States - Moscow is talking to Walter Cronkite about an unprecedented American TV interview with Yuri Andropov.
''The situation is definitely better than last year,'' comments a senior National Security Council aide. ''At that time, some doubted that deals were possible even when the United States and the Soviet Union had overlapping interests. Now we know that we can work together,'' the NSC official explains.
But he and others in the White House caution that the movement toward a superpower reconciliation shouldn't be overplayed. According to this, Ronald Reagan's adviser states, ''the Soviets are prepared to do business (with the US) , but no major breakthroughs are in sight.'' Still some influential voices inside and close to the administration express optimism regarding prospects for a new detente, and specifically for a summit between Reagan and Andropov.
Talk to some people in upper-middle levels of the State Department and you are likely to get an impression that there is more to the US-Soviet relationship than meets the eye. But is there?
Portraying one's hopes as tomorrow's policies in order to generate a political momentum is among Washington's oldest and perfectly accepted bureaucratic ploys. But for the ploy to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, somebody or something has to break a current deadlock in arms control.
That is not going to be easy. Positions of the two sides at talks on strategic arms reductions and on intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF) held in Geneva remain miles apart. Both negotiations are now in recess. But their latest round brought no meaningful progress.
The Reagan administration has more or less reconciled itself to the idea that any real movement on START will have to wait until the INF issue is resolved. But, as Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy and the leading hardliner charged in a New York Times interview the other day, ''In INF, the Soviets have not been negotiating seriously.''
Perle and his allies in the administration argue that sooner or later, confronted with the eventuality of deployment of US Pershing 2 and cruise missiles in Europe, the Politburo will come to its senses and make appropriate concessions. From Mr. Perle's standpoint, the US has already displayed sufficient flexibility and - with an exception of some marginal adjustments - no major change in the American position is justified.
Mr. Perle complains about those who question the seriousness of his approach, which up to now has dominated the administration's arms control policy. He alleges that the critics are not only unfair, they also do damage to the US arms control efforts. Mr. Perle has a point. Moscow has little incentive to yield to tough American demands at the bargaining table if it believes that domestic opposition in the United States would put President Reagan in a position where he has to either make his arms control proposals more acceptable to the Soviet Union or be denied some crucial new weapons systems.
Unfortunately, Mr. Perle's record of negotiating with the Russians hardly inspires confidence. During his illustrious career as an assistant to Sen. Henry M. Jackson, he played a key role in torpedoing several cooperative arrangements with the Soviet Union, especially in trade and arms control areas.
Whether Mr. Perle and his patrons, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Fred C. Ikle, are serious about arms control is anybody's guess. But clearly negotiability of US initiatives is not among their chief criteria. ''For these guys, negotiability is a dirty word,'' says a senior State Department official.
But currently the State Department's proponents of arms control can do little but hope that Andropov - his public declarations to the contrary notwithstanding - will make some 11th-hour concession on INF before the deployment starts in December, and complain about Perle's intransigence. As of late, the State Department was losing ground. Policymaking on arms control, as well as the Middle East and Central America, was increasingly concentrated in the White House, specifically in the NSC run by William Clark.
Here Mr. Perle has some old allies. NSC's arms control unit director is his former deputy, Ronald F. Lehman II. Another senior NSC newcomer is Christopher M. Lehman (no relation), the brother of Mr. Perle's old buddy Navy Secretary John Lehman. The balance of power on the NSC staff doesn't favor mod-erates. Their greatest hope, Robert C. McFarlane, a tough-minded but pragmatic Clark deputy, was appointed Middle East special envoy. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Jack Matlock, who joined the NSC as a senior Soviet specialist, is highly competent in Russian affairs, but has had relatively little exposure to arms control. A pleasant, low-key diplomat, he is no match for Mr. Perle's skills in bureaucratic street fighting.
The Perle group has gained an important ally in the new US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director, Kenneth L. Adelman. On a number of occasions in inter-agency meetings, Mr. Adelman is reported to have advocated views too rigid even for Mr. Perle.
What it amounts to is that without a direct intervention from the top of the White House, the administration is not likely to develop INF proposals which could interest Andropov. The only chance for such proposals to be adopted is for National Security Adviser William Clark to send a message to everybody involved in policy formulation: The President wants an agreement; he wants it fast, and no obstructionism will be tolerated.
Mr. Clark, who in July became the chairman of a special interagency arms control committee, enjoys Mr. Reagan's trust and has enough clout to secure the Pentagon's cooperation. But will he push the cause of cutting an arms deal with the Kremlin?
Mr. Clark's own foreign policy instincts do not favor accommodation with the Soviet Union. His command of complex arms control issues is unimpressive. Consequently, the national security adviser is unlikely to challenge Mr. Perle and his supporters on substantive grounds. But the Judge, as subordinates call him, is known to turn against anyone who may hurt the President politically.
If so, future US arms control policies may well depend not so much on an enlightened assessment of national interest but rather on Mr. Clark's sense of whether having a summit with Andropov is important for Reagan's reelection. But whatever he decides, he better decide it soon.
Andropov may be interested in a summit. But to expect that on the eve of US elections and in the immediate aftermath of stationing of the first Pershing 2 missiles in West Germany the Soviet leader will grant Mr. Reagan a triumphal meeting defies common sense.