Despite Kremlin's tough talk, it still seeks arms control
Soviet leaders are genuinely angry with the Reagan administration, but they have not ''given up'' on dealing with it. In fact, they have reluctantly concluded that Mr. Reagan will likely be reelected in November and are preparing to deal with him for another four years.
That is the conclusion that has emerged from a series of interviews with Soviet officials, including ranking officials in the Communist Party hierarchy, and interviews with Western diplomats.
Although there do appear to be irreconcilable differences between Moscow and the West over nuclear arms, the Kremlin is still committed to the long-term control of nuclear arms through negotiations. In fact, it is eager to enter into talks to limit the militarization of outer space.
That said, the short-term prospects for nuclear arms negotiations do not appear promising, partly because of what Western analysts describe as a ''toughened'' attitude in the Kremlin dating from earlier this year. For this reason, some analysts expect the East-West impasse over nuclear weapons to last at least until the end of the year. It is expected to cast a pall over other relations between the superpowers.
In fact, the Soviet Union seems to be taking advantage of the present trough to settle some old scores: against rebel forces in Afghanistan; against the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov and his wife; against the United States for its boycott of the 1980 Olympics; against China, for drawing too close to Reagan during his recent trip there; and against West European nations that have allowed new US-supplied medium-range nuclear weapons to be stationed on their soil.
In turn, then, the Soviets are engaged in a punishing offensive against Afghan rebels in the Panjshir Valley.
They continue to deny Dr. Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, permission to seek medical treatment in the West - prompting a hunger strike by Sakharov that could be life-threatening. Now they seem to have sent her into internal exile.
They continue to pressure East-bloc allies not to participate in the Los Angeles Olympics. They may be spearheading a sort of counter-Olympics this summer.
They have yet to reschedule a trip to China by First Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Arkhipov that was abruptly canceled earlier this month.
And they used the occasion of a state visit by West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to lecture him publicly - and revile his government in the government-controlled news media.
Future developments in any of these areas - especially the Sakharov case - could further worsen East-West relations.
But the rest of 1984, it seems, may be a period of stock-taking on both sides. A Soviet official suggests the result may well be some form of detente with the US in the broadest sense of the word: a lessening of tensions. ''We hope,'' he says, that just the sense of self-survival will force (both countries) to that.''
In the meantime, a European diplomat says, superpower relations may continue to be tense - but they are extremely unlikely to slide into open confrontation.
Most Western diplomats here say the Soviets are unlikely to reenter nuclear arms control negotiations this year. They are waiting to see whether the Netherlands will hold to its commitment to accept new US-supplied cruise missiles on its soil. That decision is expected in June, but only after a wrenching political debate that might split the government.
The Soviets also want to see whether European peace groups will regroup this spring. A Western diplomat says Moscow is pumping in money to keep the sputtering peace movement alive.
But the overriding question for the Soviets, it seems, is the outcome of the US presidential election. Moscow does not want to do anything to help Ronald Reagan be reelected. That apparently includes talking about arms agreements.
Still, a Soviet analyst concedes, ''There's a feeling that the next president is going to be Reagan.''
Another Soviet official agrees: ''It's best to accept a worst-case scenario.''
The Soviets are modulating their criticism of Reagan to a modest extent, arguing that it is his advisers - and not necessarily the President himself - who are to blame for the atmosphere of distrust.
''We are suspicious,'' says the Soviet official, ''that they have people in this administration who would like to push the button.''
The European diplomat says the belief is a sincere one. ''There is genuine concern that some in the Reagan administration do not want arms control,'' he says.
Consequently, the Soviets say they will be looking for a change of signals from a new administration.
''Many things,'' says the Soviet official, ''will depend on the beginning of the new administration.''
The official was careful to stress that the Soviet Union will be receptive if it detects a genuine change in Washington's policies.
A member of the Communist Party's Central Committee agrees, saying, ''When the Soviet Union is met halfway, it changes heart very quickly.''
But US officials have their doubts. The Soviets, they note, are still ruminating over President Reagan's earlier description of this country as an ''evil empire.'' But, they note, Mr. Reagan sought to inject a new tone in US-Soviet relations in a major speech on Jan. 16.
''And the Soviets,'' says a US Embassy source, ''after telling us for 31/2 years that rhetoric does matter, haven't responded.''
Why not? Some analysts cite a major shift in Kremlin policy sometime in late February or early March, just after Konstantin Chernenko came to power.
These analysts say they are unable to determine whether Mr. Chernenko fostered this new policy - or, as seems more likely, merely accepted it.
''Something happened,'' posits a Western diplomat. ''For a number of reasons, partly personal, partly emotion, partly objective, a number of people argued for a policy of toughness.''
Another Western analyst says, ''I'm not sure there was a general decision to toughen up.'' Instead, he suggests, ''each issue'' - the Sakharov case, the Olympics, Afghanistan, pronouncements on nuclear arms talks - ''was decided on its own merits.'' Still, he admits, the moves fit into ''an overall pattern of toughness.''
''My impression was that until March they were slowly, bit by bit, moving out of the corner they had got themselves into.''
Now, most Western analysts agree they are right back in that corner - especially in the area of nuclear arms control.
A Soviet analyst sums up the position. The Soviet Union, he says, will return to negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe - negotiations it walked out on late last year - ''only on one condition: (that there is) not a single American missile on European soil.''
That, of course, is precisely the Soviet position that led to the breakdown of the talks last fall.
The NATO allies argue that unless the Soviets withdraw hundreds of SS-20 missiles aimed at West Europe, the new US missiles are necessary to ensure balance.
''Certainly,'' says the European diplomat, ''the positions are not reconcilable. The Soviets will eventually have to make the choice as to how much value they place on some SS-20s.''
Others are not so sure. A diplomat from a NATO country says, ''The Soviets have put a lot of time and money into their SS-20 program. Are they going to destroy that? No.''
In recent months, the Soviets have been increasing the number of SS-20 missiles, as well as stationing more intermediate-range missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
''They're criticizing this mutually higher level of armaments in Europe,'' the NATO diplomat says, ''but maybe it really suits them.''
Another analyst says the buildup is just another manifestation of a ''tougher'' Kremlin posture. He speculates that some Kremlin officials recognize that the present Soviet stance is ''basically a dead-end policy.'' These officials, he suggests, are probably arguing for ''something more positive, something more realistic.'' After the US presidential elections, he says, ''They will probably be in a better position to be heard.''
He adds that over those months Chernenko will be afforded more time to consolidate his own power. As Chernenko grows more confident in his position, this analyst says, ''he may . . . moderate the policies.'' But, he admits, ''We don't even know if he's of a mind to do that.''
For these reasons, he predicts relations between East and West will be ''in a state of flux'' until at least early 1985.
Another diplomat argues, ''They can't lose by waiting, can they? You can even argue that it behooves them to sit tight.''
Notably, however, the Soviet Union is still holding to the public position that it favors arms control.
In his most recent public statement, Chernenko said, ''The Soviet Union is a resolute opponent of competition in the race in any arms.'' He was referring to space-based weaponry - a subject of extreme importance to Kremlin strategists.
To be sure, the Soviets argue they will counter any US effort to place weaponry in space. ''If you think this electronic offensive, so to speak, will make us throw up our hands and capitulate, you're wrong,'' says a Soviet analyst.
Another Soviet official says, ''We will match you. If it's necessary to tighten our belts, we will do it.''
But in private conversations Soviet officials make clear they would rather avoid the necessity of doing that - and would begin talks on a treaty ''immediately'' after the US agreed. So far, the US hasn't.
Still, despite the many problems clouding negotiations between the superpowers, neither side seems to have abandoned a commitment to the negotiating process.
''We are not stubborn. We are not inclined to sit in different corners and not talk to each other,'' the Central Committee member says.
''We're not going to go running after them,'' a senior US Embassy official says.
But another embassy official adds, ''Our proposals are still on the table. We're waiting to talk.''