President Reagan's renunciation in effect of SALT II has severely diminished expectations among Soviet officials for a strategic arms control accord with the current U.S. administration, and Moscow is positioning itself for arms negotiations in the post-Reagan era.
The Kremlin, however, has left options open for other arms agreements with the Reagan adminstration -- a new accord on extending the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, or agreements for limiting chemical weapons or reducing U.S. and Soviet troop levels in Central Europe, for example.
Despite the current differences over the unratified SALT II strategic arms limitation treaty, the Kremlin, apparently looking beyond the Reagan administration's term, is strengthening its longer term position for negotiating nuclear weapons agreements with the United States.
President Reagan said on May 27 that the United States intended to continue to deploy B52 bombers armed with cruise missiles -- meaning it would no longer adhere to the nuclear deployment ceilings defined in SALT II. The move was not unexpected here, but it struck Moscow-based arms control specialists as poorly timed.
It followed a series of public relations setbacks for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, including the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the U.S. raid on Libya, a major Soviet ally.
And it came in the midst of Soviet maneuvering for a meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan later this year in Washington and preparations for a major gathering of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact Defense Council, scheduled to open Monday in Budapest.
Gorbachev, already viewed by some to be on the defensive, is "in no position to grant major concessions for an agreement with Washington," one senior western envoy here said.
And yet, the reasons for the Kremlin to seek an arms control agreement as a hedge against defense spending are compounding daily. They include the drains on the Soviet economy caused by sharply lower oil prices, the weak dollar, the Chernobyl cleanup costs and retooling of Soviet industries.
Moscow's interest in helping to bring a more sympathetic, Social Democratic, government to power in the 1987 West German federal elections adds to its reasons for showing short-term flexibility on arms issues.
But Soviet officials have said that Reagan's new position on SALT II, combined with his rejection of the Kremlin proposal for a nuclear test ban and his undiminished commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative, leaves no ground on which to build an arms control agreement.
However, Moscow's denunciation of the new Reagan position, considered mild by western analysts here, still held open the option for both sides to continue the spirit of SALT II. In a statement on May 31, the Soviet government said that U.S. violations of the SALT II limits would lead the Soviets also to disavowing them. But it said that the Soviet side "proceeds from the premise that the continued observance, on a mutual basis, of the obligations formulated by the SALT II treaty would have considerable importance for the maintenance of the security balance and the enhancement of security."
At the same time, the Soviet leadership is quietly bolstering its approach to arms control.
The personnel assigned to East-West relations are being upgraded. The promotion of former ambassador to the United States Anatoliy Dobrynin, whose role in negotiating the final stages of SALT II boosted his reputation here and in Washington, touched off promotions for other senior Soviet specialists on the United States and arms control.
And a disarmament agency has been created in the Foreign Ministry and is to be headed by Victor Karpov, currently in charge of the Soviet delegation at the arms talks in Geneva.
The staff changes were buttressed by two moves likely to influence U.S.-Soviet strategic negotiations: a call from Gorbachev to reduce impediments to growth in the domestic economy and refinements in Moscow's arms control strategy vis-a-vis Washington.
On May 23, Gorbachev summoned all Soviet ambassadors and senior Foreign Ministry officials to Moscow where, in a speech to a closed session, he reportedly emphasized that resolving long-time domestic economic problems is his number one policy priority.
"When Gorbachev calls ambassadors back to tell them that he wants domestic economic growth above all," one western analyst here said, "it's a way of saying, 'let's cut down defense costs, if we can.' "
Other analysts have interpreted the speech as a sign of Gorbachev's frustration that Soviet diplomats have displayed little of the polish and flexibility that the 55-year-old leader has exhibited in public statements and speeches.
Six days after Gorbachev's speech, Soviet negotiators in Geneva put forward a proposal for extending the ABM Treaty. U.S. officials have said it was the first new Soviet position on space weapons in months.
In its campaign for a nuclear test ban, the Soviet union already has shown greater sophistication in its public arms control positions than previous Soviet leaderships.
Unlike the Kremlin's 1982-83 campaigns against the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe and the continuing war of words against Reagan's SDI program for antimissile defense, the fight for an underground nuclear test ban "seems to be designed to accentuate the weak points in the U.S. position, which is not strong," one western analyst here said.
Analysts here noted one other important similarity between Moscow's pitch for an test ban and its support for the SALT treaty: In both cases the Kremlin has made its position clear but closed off no negotiating options.