Since the November summit meeting in Geneva between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet officials repeatedly have evoked "the spirit of Geneva" as the formula for improved U.S.-Soviet relations.
During the past month, in Moscow's view, the "spirit" has taken a beating -- in Libya, Nicaragua, in the Black Sea and in the Nevada desert.
But so far, despite the harsh words, the Soviets have refused to give up on prospects for a dialogue with Washington, and most observers here expect that Gorbachev eventually will follow through with the next summit meeting in Washington.
This point was reinforced here today in a press conference by Georgi Kornienko, the Kremlin's first deputy foreign minister.
In spite of recent actions by Washington, Kornienko said the Soviets remain interested in a summit this year. He said Gorbachev's call on Saturday for an immediate meeting with Reagan in Europe to discuss a nuclear test ban was not intended to replace a full-scale summit later.
"Gorbachev did not mean that this meeting, if it took place, would supplant the summit meeting, which he had agreed upon in Geneva and which would be a visit by Gorbachev to Washington," he said.
Asked whether the recent U.S. military confrontation with Soviet ally Libya or other Reagan administration actions tested the Kremlin's patience, Kornienko said, "We are looking upon these actions as defiant and provocative," and they contradict "the spirit of Geneva."
But, Kornienko added, "we have strong nerves and we are not easily provoked into breaking off a dialogue . . . . We shall continue making every effort to improve the international situation."
But while Washington awaits definitive word on the Soviet leader's plans, the Kremlin is apparently trying to use the time to build pressure on the White House. The question asked by western observers here is whether Moscow understands the audience to which it is playing in Washington and that the audience may not be listening.
Soviet commentators have been pointing lately to a series of U.S. actions -- from orders to cut down Soviet staff at the United Nations and Navy warships cruising close to the Soviet Black Sea coast to the March 22 explosion of a nuclear device under the Nevada desert -- as attempts to undermine the good will established at the first meeting between Gorbachev and President Reagan last November.
Other items on the list of Soviet grievances include Reagan's strong anti-Soviet statements as part of his push for aid to anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua, the activities of the U.S. 6th Fleet off Libya and, most recently, the supply of modern antiaircraft missiles to resistance groups in Afghanistan and Angola.
In the Soviet view, these events are all linked and designed to challenge the Soviet Union. Analysts in the government and in the press here argue that they represent a shift from the Geneva spirit back to what they see as the Reagan administration's anti-Soviet tendencies and global ambitions.
"These are not separate, isolated acts, but component parts of a premeditated course," said the Communist Party newspaper Pravda recently.
So far, however, Moscow's reaction has been restrained, even as U.S. ships were firing at Soviet-supplied missile sites in Libya, where Soviet crews also may have been present.
"We are sufficiently powerful, sufficiently self-confident and sufficiently civilized to give an adequate response, without hysterics, to provocative intrigues," said Alexander Bovin, political commentator for the government newspaper Izvestia.
Echoing a phrase used by Gorbachev in his concluding speech to the 27th Communist Party congress last month, Bovin added: "We wouldn't slam the door."
Gorbachev, in his message on television Saturday night, offered again to give Reagan what he described as one more chance to join in a Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing, even as he harshly condemned such tests by the Americans as "a pointed challenge to the Soviet Union."
Western diplomats here attribute Moscow's controlled response to the Soviets' determination not to rupture the links -- however tenuous -- reestablished in Geneva.
"They want to continue the relationship, and in their view, it can only be broken for something very, very serious," one western diplomat said.
In that sense, most here agree that Gorbachev wants to go ahead with the second summit in Washington this year, as was agreed in Geneva last November.
The timing is still an issue: the Soviets pointedly have evaded all efforts to set a date. One western diplomat here described the Kremlin as playing poker with the summit's dates, but not with the summit itself.
Kornienko kept up the pressure on Washington today for a summit that goes beyond just another cordial meeting to one that includes substantive agreements. He told reporters that if a "constructive outcome" is assured, "we will agree on any date."
Diplomats here expect the issue to be clarified this month when outgoing Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin returns to Washington. The pressures of the calendar may close off June as an option, although July remains a possibility. But any further slippage is likely to have the effect of moving the date past the U.S. elections, perhaps to December, according to one western diplomat.
A winter summit may help the Soviets play out their hand, he noted. "For the moment there is some difficulty for the Russians to leave their poker game and to agree on an early date," said one diplomat.
Many diplomats here agree that for Gorbachev to call off the summit would be a risky and costly proposition. Not only would it conjure up images of the failed Soviet policy in 1984 -- when the Soviets retreated after they walked out of arms talks in Europe and got blamed by many countries for the collapse of those talks -- but it would repudiate the course chosen by Gorbachev when he went to Geneva last fall, they say.
At the same time, the Soviets are intent on showing their displeasure over the events they call "a provocation of the spirit of Geneva."
As one western diplomat noted, this rough spell in U.S.-Soviet relations is in part due to a continuing mutual misunderstanding.
"Angola. The contras. Libya. All this may seem like a campaign to a Russian used to analyzing events as concerted actions directed from the center. They cannot understand that these things may be isolated," said one diplomat.
Likewise, this interpretation tends to be overlooked in Washington, where policy is not always focused on the U.S.-Soviet relationship, he noted.
The contrast between American activism and Soviet restraint being drawn now in the Soviet press fits a prevalent propaganda theme. While Americans are portrayed pursuing a policy of interventionism, the Soviets are shown as abiding by international law -- in the Philippines, in Libya and in Haiti.
Of all the U.S. actions, the most serious in the Soviet view was said to be the decision to continue a program of underground tests -- in spite of the seven-month Soviet campaign to bring about a ban on tests.
Some diplomats here attribute the lack of real progress in East-West relations -- most notably at the arms talks in Geneva -- as a function of Soviet preoccupation with internal affairs. They note that Gorbachev's foreign policy initiatives lately have reflected an ad hoc quality, as if fashioned by differing advisers.
But throughout the recent spate of reactions, statements and speeches -- which will continue this week in a meeting Friday between Gorbachev and two visiting U.S. congressmen -- the thread seems to be a Soviet determination not to be caught once again as the odd man out of international affairs.
"They want the meeting, because they need it," is the way one diplomat assessed the situation.