Moscow — As US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko met at the United Nations in New York, the road ahead for detente looked long, rough, and uphill.
Prospects have improved though with the announcement that the superpowers have reached an understanding on preliminary negotiations to limit each other's nuclear forces in Europe.
Westerners with long experience of Soviet-watching here had been expecting Mr. Muskie and Mr. Gromyko to meet again fairly soon to open talks on medium-range missiles in Europe. But they don't believe that such talks mean a significant upturn, although they would serve to keep a line of communications open for the moment.
There is a feeling in Moscow that relations between the two superpowers are worse now than at any other time since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Each is deeply disillusioned with the other.
For those relations to improve, the Soviets would have to send some kind of signal that they were willing to modify their terms for withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan. At the moment, there is no sign of such a signal. Diplomats here don't expect one any time soon.
Privately, Soviet sources tell Westerners: "To pull out now is not an option for us." Soviet troops appear bogged down. The Kremlin dare not withdraw them suddenly for fear that the government of Babrak Karmal would collapse and Afghanistan's pro-Moscow status be endangered.
New talks on missiles in Europe would be useful. But the Soviets insist no decisions made could come into force until the SALT II treaty is ratified by the Senate. Prospects for ratification look poor.
President Carter says he will urge the Senate to try to ratify it once again if he is re-elected in November. After stopping debate after the Soviet move into Afghanistan, Mr. Carter is now apparently persuaded that limiting strategic arms is too important to delay any longer.
But the mood of the Senate, already turning against the treaty before the Afghan invasion, is still thought to be opposed to it. American public opinion itself has swung to the right.
If Republican Ronald Reagan is elected, he says he will not even submit the SALT II treaty to the Senate again. And Soviet officials are grim as they read Mr. Reagan's pledges to regain American military superiority.
It is basic Soviet philosophy now that US superiority has gone forever, that Moscow has caught up in almost all military fields and will never allow itself to fall behind again, no matter what the cost.
The Soviets made possible a round of talks on medium- range missiles (called by diplomats "theater nuclear forces" or TNF for short) by agreeing to drop a pre-condition.
That pre-condition was that NATO must first agree to suspend or cancel its own decision, made last December, to install 572 Pershing and cruise missiles in Western Europe by 1982.
Moscow says instead that new talks must include American medium-range missiles based in Europe (so-called "forward-based" systems).
Limiting strategic arms remains the core of improved relations between Moscow and Washington. Lack of progress means little hope for improvement -- and given the impasse over Afghanistan, improvement looks even further distant.
Signs here indicate the sharpness in the air.
American diplomats in Moscow are under pressure from the Soviet press. In August political officer Judy Mandel and her husband were attacked in the weekly Literary Gazette for remarks allegedly made during a visit to a private apartment in Tashkent, in Soviet Central Asia.
The attack was seen here as an effort to keep Soviet citizens away from US diplomats -- and to have Mrs. Mandel reassigned to another country.
Now the same gazette has returned to the attack. It accuses political officer Don Johnson of trying to prove that the recent death of the wife of a dissident (Vladimir Borisov) in a car crash was, in fact, murder.
The Literary Gazette says Mr. Johnson visited members of the deceased woman's family. The US Embassy agrees that he did visit them, but says the gazette allegations are a distortion of the truth, and another effort to discredit US diplomats here.
Soviet officials still turn down some embassy requests for permission to travel to parts of the Soviet Union. Given curcrent coolness there's no chance of appealing the refusals.