The Soviet Union will continue to match each public gesture by President Carter in support of dissidents with a response tough enough to show that Moscow cannot be pressured. Indeed, the Soviets are prepared to bear down even harder on those critical of the regime.
And yet, the Kremlin has not - at least thus far' - allowed the great confrontation over human rights that has dominated its relations with the new administration from virtually the day it took office to interfere with superpower business as usual.
This is the consensus view of available Soviet sources and Western specialists here following the past week's events which featured the Carter meeting at the White House with Soviet dissident exile Vladmir Bukovsky and a vitrolic Soviet press campaign against the United States.
The atmosphere in Moscow has not been as acrimonious in years. There was a "satirical" article in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda the day after the Bukovsky-Carter meeting that was a thinly diguished portrayal of the president as a venal Ku Klux Klanner giving hospitality to dissidents.
Yesterday, the government newspaper Izvestia charged that two American diplomats - both of them Jews - are spies in collusion with Soviet Jews who have been refused permission to emigrate. Some foreign readers were struck by article's implicit appeal to anti-Semitism.
The United States is taking an almost hourly pounding on Tass, the official Soviet news agency. In a commentary entitled "Laying the Blame at Other People's Doors," Tass asked last week, "How can one speak of [human rights] in a country where tens of millions of people live below the poverty line . . . which has Indian reservations, where racial discrimination of black Americans and anti-Semitism are flourishing?"
But for all that hostility, there has been no hint that the Soviets might call off the visit by Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance scheduled for later this month, which was once regarded as the official inauguration of Kremlin relations with the new administration. On the agenda are discussions on strategic arms limitations, a comprehensive nuclear test ban and prospects for peace in the Middle East - the real issues in detente, as the Soviets view the term.
U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toom met twice this week with Georgi Korniyenko, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with the United States. Toon was summoned on short notice to the first session on Tuesday, presumably to be told how angry the Soviets were with Carter's reception of Bukovsky. The next meeting, on Thursday, however, was a lunch in the ambassador's honor at a ministry guest house.
The most sophisticated Kremlin analysis understand that the American stance on human rights is essentially an emotional one - and that the Soviet response is a defense of its ideology - whereas on the practical matters of relations, the situation does not seem as grim. Carter has said repeatedly that he is serious about making headway quickly on arms matters and he has chosen a team of senior advisers known to favour strategic arms limitation.
The Soviets no doubt are encouraged by the Carter administration's apparent committment to a Geneva conference on the Middle East, where the Soviet Union would join with the United States as cochairman. In fact, were it not for the human rights issue, things might seem positively rosy.
"We consider that the way relations begin, the first impressions, "are very important." one leading Soviet journalist said privately last week, "and there is no doubt that our start with Mr. Carter has been very bad. But perhaps the game can be saved during Vance's visit.
There have even been a few hints that Moscow would ease its increasing repressive campaign against dissidents if the administration would end its challenge to Moscow on the issue.
On Wednesday, Soviet officials told the wife of jailed biologist Sergei Kovalvov that he would be moved from the labor camp in the Urals where he is serving to a prison hospital in Leningrad for treatment of cancer. This was one of the specific requests contained in a letter that Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had made in a letter to Carter two weeks ago in answer to one he received from the President.
Yesterday, another dissident. Vladimir Borisov, was unexpectedly released from a Leningrad psychiatric hospital where he had been confined for more than two months. Only 10 days ago, Tass had said that a commission of doctors had examined Borisov and found that he needed to be kept in the hospital because of the "aggravation of his psychic disease."
If those actions were meant as a carrot for Carter, the stick was in the Izvestia allegations last night about U.S. diplomats recruiting dissidents as American spies. An open letter from a repentent dissident. Jew and an accompanying article contained inferences that the Jews named would be arrested, that the one diplomat named now serving here would be expelled and that correspondents in "frequent contact" with dissenters can also expect trouble.
The last time anarticle of this type by a former dissident appeared, the two persons most breated in it - Alexander Ginzburg and Yuri Orlov - were both arrested in a matter of days. Rarely has a single Soviet blast been so clearly a warning as was the latest Izvestia article.
Recognizing the unusually harsh nature of the attack, the U.S. embassy said today that it was "a classical disinformation piece laced with slander and innuendo and as such unworthy of further comment at this time."
Although preparations continue for the Vance visit and expectations are high that it might still be productive there is a continuing undertone in Soviet statements that Carter's human-rights declarations will inevitable take their toll in time on other aspects of relations.
The definitive statement on that score remains the one made in Pravda late last month: "Relations of peaceful coexistence and constructive cooperation between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A." the newspaper said, "can fruitfully develop only when they are based on mutual respect for the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.
The "linkage" that Washington insists no longer exists between various issues in bilateral relations is still very much a factor here.
If the current trend continues a growing number of Soviet and foreign analysts here believe, the price of Carter's commitment to morality in American foreign policy may turn out to be the sharpest breach in relations with the Kremlin in a decade.