The new Kremlin leadership appeared to signal readiness tonight to consider President Reagan's conciliatory gestures today as offering the possibility of improving relations.
In what was seen by observers here as a significant response, Moscow television devoted a considerable portion of its main evening news program to Reagan's visit to the Soviet Embassy in Washington this morning.
This, along with Reagan's announcement today of the lifting of U.S. sanctions against the Siberian gas pipeline and the dispatch of a high-level delegation to attend the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev Monday, was interpreted by well-informed sources as improving the atmosphere for discussions.
Though scarred by recent failures and wary of American intentions, the Soviets are not likely to pass up an opportunity to reach some understanding with Reagan.
But the sources said Moscow would have to assess Reagan's posture carefully before it could suspend a major counteroffensive that had been emerging during the last weeks of Brezhnev's life.
The Soviet media tonight ignored Reagan's announcement on lifting of the pipeline sanctions. All along, the Soviets have insisted that the American sanctions would not delay construction of the pipeline.
There is an impression here that the ruling elite, and the armed forces in particular, suspect an American ploy behind the gestures of good will -- a maneuver to delay new Soviet weapons programs forecast by Brezhnev while Reagan continues his arms buildup.
The possibility of clearing up these suspicions may arise when Vice President Bush and Secretary of State George P. Shultz arrive Sunday for Brezhnev's funeral.
The Americans have broadly hinted that they would welcome an opportunity for Bush and Shultz to meet with the new Soviet Communist Party chief, Yuri Andropov, who is just settling in as Brezhnev's successor.
U.S. sources said they had no indication whether the meeting would take place. Bush, who is due here Sunday night, is scheduled to leave after the funeral Monday to resume his African tour. The Americans have let it be known that Bush and Shultz were prepared to delay their departure from Moscow if offered the opportunity to meet Andropov.
The funeral is scheduled to start at approximately 4 a.m. EST Monday and is to be televised live by ABC-TV and possibly other American networks.
There was speculation here that the Soviets may organize a Kremlin reception for the visiting dignitaries after the funeral that would provide a forum in which Andropov could meet with Bush and Shultz.
That was the way president Lyndon Johnson received Soviet first deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan following the funeral of John F. Kennedy. The two then held a formal session the next day.
While stressing continuity of Soviet domestic and foreign policies, the new leadership was reported to be engaged in extensive preparations to revamp its ruling party and government bodies. Well-informed sources said that wide personnel changes should be expected in the coming weeks.
There have been no official comments on foreign policy matters, however. Andropov, in his speech to the party Central Committee that elected him general secretary, emphasized that the country should not "beg peace" but rely on the "invincible might" of its armed forces.
But diplomatic observers said it was too early to assess Soviet intentions. The appearance of Reagan on Soviet national television tonight was extraordinary, given his past treatment by the media here.
Reagan was shown chatting amiably with Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin and signing a book of condolences. The newscaster said he wrote, "My condolences to the family of President Brezhnev and the peoples of the Soviet Union. May our two peoples live in peace in the world."
The broadcast also showed Shultz visiting the embassy and signing a book of condolences. The program included an interview with elder statesman W. Averell Harriman, who was U.S. ambassador to Moscow during World War II.
Many world Communist leaders already have arrived and Andropov reportedly plans a meeting with them Sunday.