The United States and the Soviet Union resume their high-level dialogue Tuesday after a four-month period, including the martial law crackdown in Poland, during which their relations have worsened drastically.
Soviet-American relations were already at the lowest point in many years when Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Foreign Minister Andrei F. Gromyko sat down for nine hours in New York last September for the first top-level conference of the Reagan administration.
Now, six weeks into Poland's travail, relations between Washington and Moscow have plunged even lower, to the point that only a political "wind-chill factor" would suffice to measure the icy blasts.
Haig, who leaves Washington this morning for the meeting place in Geneva, has made known his intention to concentrate first and foremost on Poland in his exchange with the veteran Soviet diplomat.
Blaming Moscow for the Polish events, the Reagan administration recently adopted economic and political sanctions against the Soviets, urged its allies to do the same and threatened further sanctions in the weeks to come.
To dramatize his attitude for all to see -- perhaps especially American conservatives and his predecessor and former boss, Henry A. Kissinger -- Haig reduced the forthcoming meeting with Gromyko from two days to one day, and made it known that the United States will not use the occasion, after all, to launch new strategic arms negotiations.
There are varying interpretations, even within Reagan administration councils, of the meaning of the arms control gesture. Some officials, pointing out that planning of a U.S. position continues apace, predict a start on new Soviet-American strategic arms negotiations early this year despite Haig's gesture.
To other officials, however, the linking of the strategic arms talks to the Polish situation last week will make it politically difficult to move ahead later in the absence of progress on the Polish front.
Recent events make clear that this "linkage" of Poland and arms control is a matter of convenience rather than a matter of principle. The Soviet-American negotiations on limiting European-based missiles, for example, continue despite Poland. In the view of Haig, to halt these particular negotiations would only court disaster for the United States.
"We would have replaced 60,000 West European marchers protesting the Polish repression with 300,000 peace marchers protesting against us" by stopping the Euromissile talks, an official -- believed to be Haig -- told Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News. Asked about Kissinger's demand for the broadest sort of "linkage," the official replied, "Kissinger has the luxury of not having to take the political responsibility for what he says."
The Soviet response to all this is not hard to predict in view of recent public and private exchanges with Washington. Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev, in his Dec. 25 reply to President Reagan's message on Poland two days earlier, charged that the United States -- rather than the Soviet Union -- is the one interferring in Polish internal affairs.
Moreover, the Brezhnev letter, as described by the Soviet news agency Tass, charged that the Reagan administration had undermined previous achievements in Soviet-American relations and declared that if further erosion occured, "the United States would bear the entire responsibility for this."
Despite some reports to the contrary at the time, Brezhnev did not suggest that Poland could be discussed at high levels between Moscow and Washington, according to sources familiar with the letter. The Soviets have not accepted the Reagan administration's insistence that the crackdown in Poland is a legitimate issue between Moscow and Washington.
The "dialogue" between Haig and Gromyko on this crucial point, therefore, is likely to be no more than a recitation of established and opposing positions. There is little expectation among Washington policy makers, in fact, of movement toward accommodation from the Soviets on any point in the Haig-Gromyko discussions.
The official U.S. view of the situation inside Poland is that it is still "deteriorating," as Reagan said in last week's press conference. Such a view helps maintain international pressure, most importantly the pressure on the European allies to continue their movement toward the adoption of sanctions.
At the same time, Washington is warily watching for political maneuvers by the Polish leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, that might seem to ease the internal situation and thus diffuse the outside pressures. There is speculation that Jaruzelski might announce such steps Monday in an address to the parliament, possibly even a date for the lifting of martial law.
The internal struggle in Poland is between eastern authority and western ideas and connections in the heart of the Soviet Union's Eastern European empire.
But the international struggle over Poland is, to a large degree, being fought out in Western Europe, which has become a central political battleground of East and West, especially since the onset of the Reagan administration.
In their face-to-face encounter in chilly Geneva, both Haig and Gromyko are likely to have the Western Europeans very much in mind when talking about the pressing problems of Soviet-American relations in year two of the Reagan administration.