With the visit of Secretary of State George Shultz three days away, the United States Marine scandal appears to have been transformed from an intelligence triumph into a political irritation for Moscow. Soviet officials are expressing the concern that the affair may be used by the US to back away from an agreement on medium-range nuclear missiles.
Moscow seems to be planning a two-track response: a tough line on espionage coupled with a softer line on missiles. The Soviet Foreign Ministry yesterday held an exhibit of bugs allegedly found in Soviet diplomatic installations in the US; and Soviet officials hint that Mikhail Gorbachev will make new arms control proposals today during a major policy speech in Prague, where he is now visiting.
The Soviet Union is eager to obtain at least one substantial arms control agreement before Ronald Reagan leaves office. After Mr. Gorbachev announced on Feb. 28 that the USSR was removing the medium-range missiles (by Soviet definition, those with a range of 1,000 to 5,000 kilometers, or up to 3,100 miles) from the package of disarmament measures proposed last October at the Iceland summit, Soviet officials predicted an agreement could be reached in a few months.
They are now expressing doubt that either the US or NATO is really interested in an agreement. One Soviet military analyst said yesterday that Western Europe was ``zigzagging'' over medium-range missiles. A commentary in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda yesterday equated the uproar in the US over the Marine case - in which three marines have been charged with spying, two of them after allegedly being seduced by Soviet women - to other incidents during recent years that had allegedly been blown out of proportion by Reagan administration hard-liners to forestall movement toward arms control. Once again, the commentary stopped short of identifying President Reagan himself as a hard-liner.
Yesterday's display of alleged US eavesdropping devices was another example of the present leadership's combative approach to propaganda: If attacked, it tends to respond in kind.
The Soviet officials who presented the equipment did not try to deny that their intelligence organizations planted bugs. Ivan Miroshkin, a representative of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's security service, was asked if US spying equipment was as modern as or better than similar Soviet equipment. He replied, ``I have not carried out technical comparisons, so I think we'll leave that to the specialists. I think they will make the appropriate conclusions and will take them into consideration in their work.''
Boris Pyadishev, a Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman, stressed that Moscow was presenting solid evidence of US eavesdropping in the Soviets' US missions. The US so far had made only allegations, he said.
The Soviet display included photographs and actual examples of bugs allegedly found in the new Soviet Embassy complex in Washington, the embassy's country residence, its consulate general in San Francisco, and living accommodations in the UN mission in New York. Some of the devices removed from the new Soviet Embassy building in Washington had been found ``literally in the last few days,'' Mr. Miroshkin said.
The bugs had been planted behind wood and concrete walls and in insulation around windows, the Soviets said; the main television antenna of one apartment block had allegedly been turned into a transmitting device for eavesdropping. The equipment used the most advanced technology, Miroshkin said, and was designed to function for years.
A comment by a Soviet official after the display seemed to sum up the message that Moscow was trying to convey: ``We all know both sides do this sort of thing, but if we make a big noise about it, we are just wasting everybody's time.''