Soviet inability to comprehend the workings of the American system is currently producing a "dangerous" perception gap between the two nations, according to an unusual U.S. government research study.

At a time of exceptional tension between Moscow and Washington, the study found, "The situation is dangerous precisely because Soviet experts themselves tend to believe that they in fact understand American society."

Even after the American shock over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, members of the Soviet political elite see the United States as the more "trigger-happy" and militarily venturesome superpower.

Nevertheless, the most sophisticated Soviet observers of the American scene are described as seeking "a Soviet-American co-dominion to stabilize a frightening world. . . ."

"To the extent that Soviets see policy as a function of personality, they are cautiously optimistic that the relationship can only improve after the election, in part on the grounds that Americans cannot long ignore the importance of a working relationship with the Soviet Union. At the same time, there is a strong feeling that the Soviet Union cannot do business with the current president. . . ."

These findings emerge from a unique research project sponsored by the U.S. International Communications Agency. It is described as "the first systematic attempt to investigate Soviet elite attitudes toward and perceptions of the U.S. through tapping the knowledge of Amaericans who have had substantial recent contacts with Soviet professional and political elite groups."

Seventy Americans who have had extensive associations with "mid-to-upper levels of the Soviet political world" over many years were interviewed between late March and mid-May. The objective: to examine "generic" reasons for Soviet "misunderstanding" about the United States.

The study was conceived prior to the accelerated crumbling of American-Soviet relations with the Afghanistan invasion last December. Now, with relations close to the frigidity of the cold war years, the study has special significance.

The project director, Gregory Guroff, chief of the Soviet-Eastern Europe branch of ICA's Office of Research, said yesterday that participants included "most of the leading American specialists on the Soviet Union who have continuing personal contacts" with Soviet officials. All of the interviewed specialists were promised anonymity. About half of the interviews, Guroff said, were with current American diplomats; 19 were academic specialists, among whom were some former American diplomats; nine were persons from business and banking who had contacts at levels normlly unreachable by other specialists, and nine others were from the journalistic community.

Selection of the participants, the study states, was conducted with the cooperation of Marshall Shulman, special adviser to the secretary of state for Soviet affairs, and with the American Embassy in Moscow. Inevitably, controversy is virtually assured because of the great division of views among American specialists on the Soviet Union.

In addition, the study clearly acknowledges that the current interim report is "not based on a statistical analysis, but involves substantial qualitative judgments." Even so, the study states that a considerable consensus was found among American specialists on the issues explored.

While most of the findings will not surprise students of American-Soviet affairs, many of the conclusions collide head-on with widespread American assumptions -- as well as with Soviet assessments.

The study includes these findings -- which, it must be emphasized, are American assessments of Soviet perceptions:

While American specialists on the Soviet Union are deeply divided over whether Soviet analysts understand the United States well or poorly, the study supported the skeptics.

Although knowledge about the United States has increased considerably in the Soviet Union since an "explosion" of "American studies" in the 1960s, the results are disappointing: "Greater access does not ensure greater understanding, and in some cases quite the contrary."

"For some [Soviet "Americanologists," known in the Soviet Union as "Amerikanisty"], the closer they get to the compexity of American society, the more difficult it is to understand 'how it works.' Everything in their own background suggests that it is impossible for a society to function as Americans say the U.S. does."

While knowledge of details of the American system has greatly increased, "Even the Soviet Americanists do not have a 'feel' for the workings of the U.S. system." For example, "Soviets who study the U.S. have long assumed that hidden somewhere in the economic system is the key to American success." It is suspected that "a U.S. state secret" conceals "a planning mechanism for the American private sector."

In times of high tension, such as the collision over Afghanistan, "rarely if ever do Soviets see their own actions as precipitants of U.S. action. Soviet foreign policy remains a sacred cow internally. Given their history, Soviets find it difficult to believe that they would take offensive actions, but are inclined to view each [Soviet] action as defensive in a hostile world. This unwillingness to be critical of their own actions makes it very difficult for them to understand other countries' actions which are predicated on a view that the Soviet Union is a military threat to their security."

"While some Soviets believe that they have achieved military equality, most face the future with ambivalence. They, including the military, view American technology with awe, fearing that the U.S. could, if it chooses, unleash its productive capacity and eliminate the Soviets' hardearned relative gains."

"Nothing unites Soviets, particularly Russians, more than a fear of China. Their attitude borders on the irrational . . . Over the long haul, China is perceived as enemy number one. Soviets react to America's China policy with incredulity. They warn that the U.S. will be burned in its dealings with the Chinese much as the Soviets perceive that they were burned."

"Soviets consider the U.S. relationship to be their most important international concern. They believe that the U.S. does not reciprocate this feeling and does not accord Soviets the recognition or equality they deserve."

The Soviet elite does "note see any direct linkage between American reactions and their involvement in Afghanistan. Iran is seen as the more explosive situation."

There exists "insatiable Soviet curiosity about the U.S.," which represents "an exotic forbidden fruit -- hard to travel to and surrounded by mythology."

"If anything, Soviets tend to err on the side of assuming even greater wealth and ease in the West than in fact exist. Even those who are hostile to the U.S. see it as their standard of comparison." Ironically, it appears that "if the American dream is still believed anywhere, it is in the Soviet Union."

The study has been circulated inside the government to officials involved with Soviet affairs. It was first presented publicly on Wednesday at a seminar held by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.