When President Carter on June 7 spoke of a choice between confrontation or desperation for the Kremlin in its tangled affairs with the United States, the betting here was that Moscow in responding would overlook cooperation and find only bad signs of confrontation in the Annapolis speech.
That glum prediction has been borne out in everything the Kremlin and its controlled press have had to say since. But Western analysts here, perhaps grasping for straws in a suddenly nasty time, also have found notes of hope in the darkening atmosphere.
"They did not close the door on anything. They still want the same things they have always wanted under Brezhnev for the past eight years - a strategic arms agreement, wider ties, eased tensions," said one Western diplomat.
He was speaking of the rising crescendo of negative reaction in the Soviet media that began the day of the president's address and peaked on Saturday with a 5,000-word Pravda attack asserting the president had "failed" to clarify his administration's views of its policies toward the Soviet Union.
"They genuinely find this administration difficult and unpredictable," said the source. He and others whose job it is to analyse this secretive, powerful government and advise their own governments on the meaning of its sometimes obscure statements, found the wide-ranging Pravda article especially evil-tempered.
"This was written in a most condescending tone to irritate. It was clearly meant to depict the little boy who was not yet learned about statesmanship - the kid in short pants," said one.
The Soviet response, summarized broadly, has been to continue the Kremlin's assertions that it is the White House responsibility to find ways of making progress on strategic arms limitation talks as well as other major areas of conflict between the two capitals. It warned Carter to avoid linking Soviet military moves in Africa to SALT, saying anew that the Kremlin views these activites which have so alarmed the administration as simply long-term Russian commitments to support "wars of national liberation.
The Kremlin response against a new wave of harassment of the small American community here and a remarkable assertion last week that the Central Intelligence Agency had murdered a Soviet man in furtherance of an espionage plot to "stop detente," poses the administration a dilemma: how can it speak publicly to the Kremlin about its concern?
One observer saw little hope on this score: "When the Russians dig in their heels, they dig in very deep."
These sources suggest that the length of time between Carter's speech June 7 and what is considered to be the definitive reply Saturday simply reflect this longstanding Soviet predilection. One scoffed at the notion that the lapse of time shows an inability on the part of the Poliburo to decide how to handle the Annapolis speech or that it signals indecisive "transition" politics under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev.
What worries these Western analysts - and surely must cause concern in a White House that is obviously searching for precisely the right way to address its concerns to the Kremlin - is that tactical dialogue may decline so badly as the affect strategic decisions.
"This is a genuine concern," said one source. "Debate like this has a way of becoming policy - and I don't like to think where that may end."
"The (Pravada) piece was a bad-tempered contribution to the dialogue between Moscow and Washington and summarized the view that they find (national security adviser Zbigniew Brezezinski) incredibly annoying. It is sure to be anastly personal jolt to Carter to have the Russians say the Annapolis speech is useless. It is exactly what is not needed to improve the dialogue between the two," said one observer.
Nevertheless, they point repeatedly to the Pravada's assertions that the Soviet Union wants to continue detente and stands ready to proceed on SALT and increased ties between the two nations.
Some diplomats here have been saying for several weeks that their job, as they see it, is to try to "limit the damage," as one put it, between the two governments until there is progress in some of the crucial disputes between them such as SALT or the negotiations now under way on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. These sources see hope in the fact that the Soviets have made new proposals for more equal force levels in Europe, where the Soviet forces heavily outnumber NATO units. They are waiting now to see what Carter will do.
"It will be very interesting to see the reaction in Washington," said one. "This is a very delicate time we are in."