Moscow — Three months into the Reagan administration, the superpowers are probing and pressuring each other on virtually all fronts, swapping invective at an intensity not seen for years.
Given the Soviet view of detente as a modus vivendi between competing communist and capitalist systems, such sparring would seem all but inevitable. It will not go away soon.
But the Kremlin still seems to hope the mudslinging will prove largely transitional, giving way to at least passably good relations between Moscow and Washington.
So suggested a senior Soviet official in a recent private conversation with this reporter, echoing a similar statement by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev before the country's Communist Party Congress here in late February.
The signs of superpower tension are everywhere: on arms control, and also in the Mideast, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and, above all, in Poland.
Poland, for the Soviets, is a package jampacked with gunpowder and crawling with "anti-socialist" pyromaniacs. Should the bundle explode, or if the Kremlin unleashes its firemen (in tanks), Western proponents of detente would presumably find themselves an endangered species.
Various Soviet officials, speaking privately, express hope the Polish crisis will yet subside, and that escalated Soviet intervention won't be necessary. But hope and confidence are quite different animals -- as President Brezhnev's delicately worded statements on the Polish crisis have made abundantly clear.
"Poland is, meanwhile, fouling up Soviet foreign policy in general," commented one East European analyst. "It's hard to plot long-range perspectives and policies with much certainty as long as you have that kind of crisis."
A member of the ruling Soviet Politburo, longtime Brezhnev aide Konstantin Chernenko, publicly rejected April 22 Western attempts to link prospects for shoring up detente to events in Poland -- the problem for the Soviets being that they cannot unilaterally cancel such "linkage."
Still, Soviet policymakers can't very well shut their doors, dangle hastily scribbled signs marked "closed for the Polish crisis," and settle down to whatever they do when not making policy.
Indeed, they seem to be working overtime these days. Since Ronald Reagan moved into the White House they have churned out "peace" initiatives with about the same frequency that the official press hails Vladimir Ilyich Lenin or Mr. Brezhnev.
So far at least, the strategy seems this:
Talk peace -- a message even the openly hard-line Reagan administration must presumably look at seriously -- but signaling the US it is not going to get away with dictating policy to, a fellow superpower.
The Soviet Union, explains one ranking official, "is not afraid of anyone or anything.
"But we are also keenly aware and convinced of the potential threat of military confrontation," he said.
He pointed to an additional explanation of "continued commitment" to overall detente: Soviet "social tasks," such as the determination to better the lot of Soviet consumers.
Mr. Brezhnev, discussing East-bloc economics in his February party congress speech, said: "The slowing of the process of detente and the arms race imposed by the imperialist powers are no small burden for us."
A Soviet official, recapping to this reporter his initial view of the Reagan administration, sighed that there seemed a lot "of showiness, saber-rattling maybe, in Washington.
"We understand this," he said in a slightly schoolmasterish tone reminiscent of Soviet press commentary earlier in this year.
"But this is not the century for this kind of thing. Distances have become so small, peoples have become so interrelated."
The Soviets, with a mix of finesse and truculence, seem hopeful of prodding Washington back to at least a semblance of detente.
--stepped back from what, to some Western officials at least, looked suspiciously like the brink of intervention.
But the Kremlin is leaving its options open.
--gested a joint superpower search for peace.
But they are meanwhile stressing tightened ties with their regional allies (Syria, the PLO, and South Yemen) and trying to undercut US attempts to improve military and diplomatic relations with key Arab states.
-- In Afghanistanm , the Indian Ocean regionm , and Asia,m there has also been a volley of Soviet diplomatic initiatives.
But Moscow is holding firm on its bid for international acceptance of the regime its troops installed and support in Kabul; and of a Cambodian government established and backed by forces from Soviet-allied Vietnam. As the US moves to cement ties with Pakistan, Moscow has done the same with India.
India, itself avowedly alarmed at tightening US-Pakistani ties, has invited the Soviet armed forces chief of staff for an official visit later this month, Moscow announced April 22.
--denying having sent arms to rebels in El Salvador and have stopped short of courting a superpower showdown over US grievances against Cuba.
But, in what diplomats here see as an exercise in ego-stroking for Fidel Castro and nose-thumbing at Ronald Reagan, the Soviets have in recent weeks sharpened rhetorical support for Cuban "anti-imperialism."
Soviet warships also paid a ceremonial call in Cuba amid commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the failed, US-sponsored Bay of Pigs assault.
--an alleged Reagan administration tilt toward "the racist regime in South Africa."
Moscow is also saying nice things about Zimbabwe, which shows no visible eagerness to join the Soviet bloc.
--key to long-term Soviet thinking on detente.
Here, the Soviets vocally reject American talk of what they call "the mythical threat" from Moscow. Essential parity exists between East and West, Soviet officials say.
But they are dangling before the Western allies a pledge of talks on reducing Soviet and Western nuclear firepower in Europe.