The coming to power of Yuri V. Andropov has changed the style and tempo of Soviet diplomacy, but repeated probing has left U.S. officials with the view that there has been no shift in Moscow's substantive positions.
"Everything that has happened so far was on course under [Leonid I.] Brezhnev, with the possible exception of the internal crackdown," said a State Department expert. "In the international field, we have seen fine tuning but so far not a new direction."
A top State Department official familiar with U.S.-Soviet exchanges since Andropov was named Soviet leader said, "I don't have anything to report other than the fact that we are probing, and so are they."
The subject continues to receive close attention, in keeping with President Reagan's declaration in his State of the Union address that the U.S.-Soviet relationship is "at the heart of our strategy for peace." Reagan's appeal for the Soviets to display "deeds as well as words" in pursuit of peace reflects the official assessment that no clear changes have occurred.
In addition to ceremonial contacts at the Brezhnev funeral in mid-November and the normal contacts through Washington and Moscow embassies, four sets of recent probes of subjects have come to light:
* Several private meetings in November and December between Max Kampelman, special U.S. ambassador to the Madrid talks on East-West cooperation, and his opposite number, Anatoly G. Kovalev, which reportedly produced no change in Soviet positions on human rights or other outstanding issues. Andropov's son, Igor, fifth-ranking member of the Soviet delegation, joined the private discussions between the two ambassadors last winter.
* A meeting in Moscow Dec. 8 on policies of the superpowers in southern Africa between Assistant Secretary of State Chester A. Crocker and Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid F. Il'ichev, which reportedly achieved no progress toward arranging withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola, a sticking point in the drive for a negotiated settlement there.
* A three-day meeting of U.S. and Soviet experts on nuclear weapons proliferation at the State Department Dec. 15-17. In the past, the two nations have worked together at times to discourage the spread of atomic weapons to additional countries. The December sessions reportedly were positive, but reflected no shift in the Soviet posture.
* Continuing discussions between U.S. and Soviet arms control negotiators at Geneva and a 90-minute meeting in Moscow Dec. 24 between U.S. Ambassador Arthur A. Hartman and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko centering on Soviet arms-control positions. U.S. officials see little change in the substantive Soviet position on nuclear arms since Andropov took over, despite an impression of flexibility fostered by Moscow in western Europe.
There is little inclination at high levels of the State Department to push for an early summit meeting between Andropov and Reagan, but there is more talk of a meeting this spring or summer between Gromyko and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. No such top-level session has been scheduled, however.
Looking at Soviet policy broadly, State Department sources observed that Moscow recently has shown more signs of energetic maneuvering in other parts of the world than in bilateral relations with the United States. Most notable have been efforts by Soviet leaders to sell their position on nuclear arms control to countries in western Europe.
High-level Soviet talks with China resumed in October, shortly before Brezhnev's death. U.S. officials would not be surprised to see intensified discussions and contacts between the rival giants of international communism, with the change in Kremlin leadership serving as justification for improved relations.
If there is to be a breakthrough between Moscow and Peking, the U.S. guess is that the best chance is for a thinning out of troops facing each other on the Sino-Soviet border. There is no sign of an agreement on such a mutual pullback or any change in the troop deployments, according to official sources.
There also are "Soviet signals" regarding Afghanistan, including hints by several prominent Soviets that Andropov's KGB had opposed invasion of Afghanistan, and suggestions that the new leader is more interested than his predecessor in a diplomatic way out.
But so far, according to senior State Department officials, there is no evidence of a shift in the Soviet position. The preponderant view is that the Soviets are seeking to improve their political posture with the Third World by seeming to be more interested in a settlement but that a negotiated exit remains a long shot.
The Soviets have invited U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to Moscow in late March for talks on Afghanistan and other issues. This follows a special round of U.S.-Soviet talks on Afghanistan that produced no positive results in Moscow last summer. The Soviets recently indicated an interest in resuming this dialogue, but nothing has been scheduled.