Overshadowed now by the dramatic developments concerning the Middle East, the volatile Soviet-American relationship has entered a new phase of searching once again for the dialogue that somehow never got started when President Carter first took office.
Even the announcement of the Camp David peace accords, by the White House Sunday, while not at all to Soviet liking, is not expected to cloud the talks on nuclear weapons beginning Friday between Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
The official Tass news agency denounced the Camp David agreements yesterday as "a plot against Arabs" and bitterly condemned Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for "betrayal of the cause of the Arab people of Palestine."
Calling the 13-day summit "collusion," Tass labeled it a failure and attacked the two documents signed by Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
"It is evident that the deal was achieved at Sadat's expense and this further demonstrates the capitulatory course of the Egyptian leadership," Tass said.
The Tass statement was consistent with the Kremlin's basic position that any peace settlement must include Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories and provision for a separate, independent Palestinian state.
But the Tass statement attacking the two documents contained no direct criticism of Carter. This is viewed here as another sign that the Soviets are seeking to cool off the debate between Moscow and Washington.
To be sure, the slight lifting of horizons detectable here is more the result of an absence of bad news than the arrival of good news. The harassment of American diplomats and journalists has ceased for now. Soviet moves in recent months have included a television accusation that some departed American correspondents were spies, a civil slander suit against two resident correspondents, attacks on U.S. diplomats by uniformed Soviet guards at the U.S. Embassy and the expulsion of an American woman diplomat accused of being an accomplice in the poisoning of a Soviet citizen.
These incidents, seemed at the time to be part of a well-organized campaign to intimidate Americans and send an unmistakable message to Washington. If so, the fact that such provocations have ceased implies a Soviet move to ease tensions here and send a different message to the U.S. administration.
The present state of relations is in marked contrast to the situation just two monts ago, when Vance and Gromyko met in Geneva just as dissident leaders Anatoli Scharansky and Alexander Ginzburg were on trial in the Soviet Union. Some said the trials were a clear signal by the Kremlin that it had given up trying to deal with Carter and that a return to Cold War tactics was at hand.
Fulfillment of that gloomy prediction seems further away today than it once did. Undeniably, a major factor is simply the passage of time, which has carried the trials into the past, and the defendants into prison.
At the time Vance said the trials would not deter the two countries from seeking a new agreement on limiting their strategic nuclear arsenals, declaring that the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) were too important to be affected by other issues between the countries.
The Soviets have said much the same thing, but it is seen as significant here that the White House has now taken special pains to ensure that Gromyko draws no affront when he is in the United States that could cloud the atmosphere at the forthcoming talks. Toward that end, the administration earlier this month asked for and received a postponement until Sept. 27 of the trial of two Soviets accused of naval espionage.
For its part, the Kremlin made what is interpreted here as a gesture of its own, when a Moscow city court handed down a suspended sentence against American businessman Francis J. Crawford on Sept. 14.
The sentence allowed Crawford to leave the Soviet Union, the American goal from the moment of his arrest on black market currency allegations June 12.
The arrest was seen as Soviet retaliation for the jailing of the two accused Soviet spies in the United States. That action by the Justic Department was itself a departure from the customary quiet expulsion by the two governments of each other's accused spies.
Time has also dimmed the sharp administration rhetoric of "linkage" between SALT and such Soviet moves as support of Ethiopia in dislodging Somali insurgents from the Ogaden Desert in the Horn of Africa. The Soviets are deeply involved in supporting Rhodesian guerrillas and in moves against South Africa. But just now, with the controversy of the Cuban-Soviet involvement in the Shaba rebellion in Zaire overtaken by other concerns, questions of "linkage" between Soviet African policies and the fundamental detente relationship have faded.
Other White House moves in recent weeks seem to have eased the atmosphere, although the Soviet press never misses an opportunity to criticize the United States. Carter's decision to allow the sale of advanced oilfield technology and equipment to the Soviets may have been based on questions of good business, since the Soviets made it very clear they intended to buy similar equipment from European competitors. But the decision surely softened the administration's image in Soviet eyes, at the same time easing for them the practical effects of the Angry American response to the trials of Scharansky, Ginzburg and Yuri Orlov.
Carter also lifted his ban on visits here of top administration officials, imposed as a response to the trials. He sent arms negotiator Paul Warnke here two weeks ago for what is thouht to have been a preview of some changes in American SALT proposals. This constitutes a new, somewhat more accommodating American approach, as seen from here, and is in sharp contrast to the original Carter move in March of 1977 in sending Vance here with sweeping new SALT proposals for an unprepared Kremlin.
Since returning to the United States, Warnke has said he believes final agreement may be attainable before the end of the year - a somewhat familiar and unfulfilled statement from the administration, but one which at last may be borne out by events in the next few months.
Major areas of tension remain, including deep Soviet apprehensions over the diplomatic moves of China and the slow but continuing improvement in relations between Washington and Peking.
Just yesterday, the Soviet military newspaper Red Star, accused the United States and Japan of attempting to "knock together" a Washington-Peking-Tokyo bloc aimed at the strategic encirclement of the U.S.S.R. The xenophobic enmity for China is intense, and the leadership's anger and alarm over the spring visit of Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to China, as well as Chairman Hau Kuo-feng's kiplomatic missions to Romania, Yugoslavia and Iran, constitute a continuing area of bitterness and suspicion.
There continues to be a seemingly irreducible level of Kremlin sensitivity to what is said and done in the United States about human rights in the Soviet Union. The most recent reminder is the official anger over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's announcement last Monday after a trip here that he had been assured by authorities that officials would review the cases of 18 families long refused permission to emigrate. News of the gesture was seen as a concrete step by the leadership to improve its image and lighten the bilateral relationship.
By Friday, however, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda was denouncing Kennedy and calling his statement an example of U.S. meddling in Soviet internal affairs.
The outburst is seen here as a caution light, warning just how fragile the present state of relations is and how quickly the Kremlin can take offense.