After years of stalemate on arms control, the United States and the Soviet Union are inching toward resuming a relationship that officials on both sides hope will be more fruitful.
No formal meetings have been announced, and neither Moscow nor Washington has changed its basic position on reducing nuclear armaments. Indeed, the fundamental differences between the two superpowers remain as sharp as ever. And within the Reagan administration, there continues to be the ideological wrist-wrestling that critics say has stymied arms control progress during the President's first term.
But since Mr. Reagan's reelection two weeks ago, there has been a change in tone and attitude that could mean a fresh start in 1985.
In recent days, there has been an exchange of messages between Washington and Moscow in which high-level diplomatic meetings have been offered and accepted. While dates and agendas have not been set, it now seems increasingly likely that US Secretary of State George P. Shultz will meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko early next year.
It was also announced from Canberra that both countries have agreed to send representatives to Australia early next year to talk with officials there about ways of controlling nuclear arms and of dealing with new weapons in space. While these would not be face-to-face meetings between Soviets and Americans, they could provide a forum for each side to demonstrate its willingness to look for a way out of the current impasse.
Also in recent days, Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko has recalled the era of detente and said Moscow is ready to work ''vigorously'' toward arms reductions. Similarly, Secretary Shultz urged both sides to move away from harsh rhetoric and public posturing to the ''private processes of diplomacy'' to work out differences.
At the moment, the US is searching for ways to help the Soviets save face by overlooking the current situation at Geneva. Soviet officials walked out of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) talks there when NATO began deploying US-built Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe a year ago. Moscow also refused to set a date for the resumption of the parallel strategic arms reduction (START) negotiations.
Now, the US is proposing broad ''umbrella'' discussions in which the whole range of arms buildup concerns could be addressed outside the context of formal negotiations, where firm proposals must be debated. This could also allow for particularly difficult subjects - antisatellite weapons, for example - to be set aside or ''talked around'' for the moment.
''This would be a preliminary meeting,'' says one senior administration official, ''an attempt to get a discussion going about what can be settled and negotiated.''
Another senior official calls this a search for ''a sense of direction.'' Here, there is growing realization that the relationships between conventional and nuclear weapons, between offensive and defensive systems, between chemical and nuclear arms, are becoming so complex that simply capping (if not reducing) one area does not necessarily lead to better national security.
It may even turn out that both sides sense a futility in pressing for comprehensive arms reductions and instead seek limited agreements, as has been suggested by former national security-adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Kenneth Adelman, head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, said recently the result may be ''arms control without agreements,'' in which the two sides fashion their strategic deterrent forces in less threatening ways while keeping a close eye on each other. Fred Ikle, a former head of ACDA, who is now the No. 3 man at the Pentagon, has long suggested the same thing.
The Soviet Union has not agreed to join umbrella arms talks, but neither has it rejected the idea. Although senior US officials (including national-security adviser Robert McFarlane and START negotiator Edward L. Rowny) have promised new ''options'' and ''trade-offs,'' there is as yet no indication that the Soviets will return to Geneva under current conditions.
The last Soviet offer on arms control was to meet in Vienna in September to talk about weapons in space while freezing tests of antisatellite (ASAT) weapons. The US refused to consider a temporary ASAT moratorium before the talks and wanted to include offensive nuclear weapons (mainly heavy, accurate ground-based missiles, of which the Soviet Union has many more) in such talks.
Since then, the general atmosphere on arms control has improved, but the basic positions remain unchanged.
The Soviet Union is particularly interested in halting the new US drive for space-based strategic defense systems. The Reagan administration has no intention of giving up the US technological advantages here, nor does it intend to let up in its push for strategic modernization, including the MX intercontinental ballistic missile, the B-1 bomber, and the new Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile.