Officials here are deeply concerned about the current campaign debate in the United States on defense and especially about the uncertain future of the strategic arms limitation talks, which they regard as the core of Soviet-American relations.
They see the current break in the SALT process as producing a new phase in the arms race and the development of new "esoteric" means of destruction. The Soviets want to continue the dialogue on strategic weapons restraints and are prepared to include negotiations on medium-range weapons in a third round of SALT.
According to officials in the Kremlin with access to top leaders, however, the Soviet Union is prepared for the worst and is willing "to pay any price" to maintain rough parity should the United States attempt to seek stategic superiority.
According to these sources, similar views were expressed by Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov and Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the Soviet chief of staff, in meetings here recently with Leslie Gelb, former director of the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs.
The unprecedented meetings with Gelb, who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, were clearly designed to convey the Soviet military leaders' continued interest in strategic arms control efforts. s
Although partially self-serving, the views of Soviet spokesmen in background briefings reflect anxiety about possible misperceptions that form a part of the terrifying logic of nuclear planning. They also display a more candid assessment of the United States than the one offered in Soviet propaganda.
In contrast to the Soviet press, which portrays President Carter and Ronald Reagan as equally dangerous militarists, these officials privately express preference for Carter.
Also in contrast to vitriolic attacks on Carter's new nuclear targeting policy, they say no realistic judgments can be passed without seeing Presidential Directive 59, which details the new policy, in its full context. The new doctrine sets a range of targets, including individual Soviet missiles instead of only targeting Soviet cities for massive destruction and relying on that threat to deter aggression.
The Soviet officials concede that their military planning had worked out similar "scenarios" but emphasize that these are not a part of Moscow's political-military doctrine. They see a doctrinal change in Washington but say that these are acceptable as long as the SALT process continues.
The Soviets are puzzled that such crucial matters as bilateral strategic issues have surfaced in an election campaign. While making allowances for rocket-rattling rhetoric, they nevertheless see the emergence of an overall negative trend in the United States.
Moscow anticipates a difficult period in its relations with Washington regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 4 elections. But officials here also see in Reagan's pledge to seek superiority a thrust toward an all-out confrontation with the Soviet Union. However much they dislike Carter, the Soviets still see him as being committed to a "rational" position on the so-called central, or long-range strategic forces, which compromise the principal arsenals of the two superpowers.
The president is severely criticized, however, for trying to gain military superiority through development of medium-range nuclear forces on Soviet flanks.
One part of this American maneuver, as they see it, is the scheduled deployment in Western Europe of 572 U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles capable of obliterating targets throughout European Russia. The other involves suspected American technological transfers to China that they fear would help their archrival develop its delivery systems.
"We are not village idots," one Foreign Ministgry official said. "We cannot pretend that a weapon fired from Western Europe is different from one fired from Montana if it hits Soviet territory."
The push toward superiority, as they see it, stems from America's inability to come to terms with a changing world in which the United States can no longer have its way, as it did after World War II, but is now vulnerable like other countries.
Even when not asked about the invasion of Afghanistan, Soviet officials bring up the subject. They say the Soviet Union and the United States will have sharp disagreements on various issues in the future but that this should not affect their ability to talk to one another on the crucial question of strategic arms.
Moscow, they point out, signed SALT I at the time the United States was fighting North Vietnam, a Soviet ally. It received Richard Nixon shortly after he ordered the mining of the Vietnamese port of Haiphong. The Soviets were expelled from Egypt, Somalia and suffered setbacks in southern Africa and elsewhere but they insist that these matters have not interfered with the SALT negotiations.
The Soviets say they have always expected arms control negotiations to be strenuous and protracted. They say they are not surprised not so much by a definite shift to the right in the United States as by the possibility that Americans may elect Reagan, who is so opposed to SALT II. Carter, on the other hand, signed the treaty, although the Senate has not ratified it.
The Soviets say they are troubled by grave risks they see in an attempt to seek strategic superiority. It has been the basic assumption on both sides that the greatest risk of nuclear war would come if one side perceived the other as capable of destroying its ability to retaliate.
"Obviously," said one official, "the Soviet Union would not permit the United States to acquire superiority or advantages that could be translated into political advantages."
Should a new round in the arms race begin, however, both sides would view any imbalance with consternation and would seek to rectify it. This will "hurt us, maybe complicate our economic development, but on the crucial question of national security wel will pay any price, go to any length" to maintain balance, one official said.
The officials also pointed out the dangers of "things getting out of hand inadvertently." In the Middle East, they said the Soviet Union would find it "difficult" to act in the same way it acted in 1973. "At that time we sought to contain the war. We could not act the same way again" under conditions of confrontation, they said.
The officials also pointed to other events that are troubling from their point of view.
China has tested an intercontinental ballistic missle this summer. India has demonstrated similar capability by orbiting a satellite. There are fears that Pakistan may be building an atomic bomb. Other powers are interested in acquiring similar capability.
The core of the problem, as the Soviet spokesmen see it, remains the global strategic relationship of rough parity and equal security. They said it is an "illusion" to believe in the possibility of a disarming first strike since both sides already have huge arsenals and both would develop "entirely new weapons" in an arms race to produce an "extremely destabilizing" climate.
Actually, officials here say, Carter's policies have "complicated" arms control and produced the deterioration in Soviet-American relations. Carter's limited nuclear war concept, they say, has severely underminded the accepted notion of deterrence. The balance of terror, while not ideal, has maintained stability.
Yet, however critical they may be, these officials say that new concepts are "managable within the SALT process and in the context of stable parity." They point with approval to Carter's acceptance speech after receiving the Democratic nomination in which he renewed his commitment to nuclear arms control.
Against this background, the Soviets are cautiously watching the American campaign for its outcome could affect their plans and lives as much as the plans and lives of the Americans.