Washington — The United States and the Soviet Union seem to be heading for a long, cold winter. Mutual distrust, the destruction of the South Korean airliner, exchanges of harsh rhetoric, and now, apparent indecisiveness in the Kremlin leadership make an improvement in US-Soviet relations seem less and less likely any time soon. This outlook seems to apply no matter what the current status of Soviet President Yuri Andropov may be.
The experts are, as usual, divided on these matters. Trying to read Soviet intentions is a hazardous business. But pessimism over the future of US-Soviet relations seems to have become more common.
''We don't see any movement in the arms control talks,'' says one Reagan administration official.
Mr. Andropov's absence from Monday's Red Square review and parade, which celebrated the 66th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, came as no surprise here. Reports of the Soviet leader's ill health had circulated widely among American experts prior to this annual event.
If Andropov is on the way out of power, it would be even less likely that the Kremlin will undertake any major initiative to improve relations with the US, experts say. The Soviets tend to become more cautious than usual in transition periods. And even if Andropov is still exercising power, his room for maneuvering appears to be limited.
The Soviets currently seem to be locked into giving priority to disrupting NATO's planned deployment of new American medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe. The deployment is scheduled to begin next month. A Soviet walkout from the Geneva talks on reducing intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe looks likely.
Even before reports began to emerge about a possible deterioration in Andropov's health, Reagan administration experts began to detect signs that the Soviet leader might not be in full control of the government and that he was therefore likely to use extreme caution in dealing with the US. As one senior administration official put it this week, there has been ''a certain amount of doubt about the degree to which Andropov is in charge.''
The Soviets' handling of the KAL incident in early September confirmed the view of some experts that Andropov's power was circumscribed by the growing influence of the military. Another senior official said at the time that the incident ''shows the great influence of the Soviet military. . . . It indicates that we should not expect too much from arms control.''
This doesn't mean that the military has taken control of the USSR. It is agreed that civilian Communist Party leaders such as Andropov still hold supreme authority.
One leading Sovietologist, Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University, told U.S. News and World Report after the KAL incident, ''In every succession struggle the military has a greater influence than it enjoys after the new leader has consolidated his power.
''But even in such a period, the Soviet military is under control of the political leadership.''
At the same time, it is commonly believed here that Andropov owes his selection as Leonid Brezhnev's successor to the military.
A recent analysis by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty concluded, therefore, that Andropov ''is unlikely to make concessions soon in arms control negotiations or to move toward genuine economic decentralization.
''This is because military leaders are believed to oppose any reduction in Soviet missile strength and any economic reorganization that might threaten their privileged access to resources.''
Few experts seem to believe that current relations approach the depths reached during the Cold War.
But there seems to be considerable agreement among experts outside the government that in periods of tension between the two superpowers, the dangers of miscalculation increase. At the moment, the Middle East is the obvious point where miscalculation could lead to confrontation.
Robert Legvold, a Sovietologist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said at a recent conference here on the Middle East that periods of tension between the US and Soviet Union make it difficult for the two superpowers to exercise restraint or moderation.
''The Soviets see the US as trying to roll back Soviet influence in the world and restore US primacy in critical areas such as the Middle East,'' said Dr. Legvold. ''The US sees the Soviets as expansionist. . . . And each country's policy in the Middle East has reached an impasse.''
In a major speech on US-Soviet relations in Chicago on Oct. 31, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth W. Dam said the ''intemperate language'' of Andropov's statement of Sept. 28 on the KAL incident ''was designed to suggest that the Soviets have given up altogether on dealing with the Reagan administration.
''This conclusion is not borne out by daily realities,'' he said, ''Our channels to the Soviets are open and working.''
Mr. Dam said the Soviets have told the US and others in private that ''they do not want a confrontation.''
Legvold said the problem with the Dam statements was not whether either side wants a confrontation.
''Indeed, he's right,'' said Legvold. ''Neither side wants a confrontation. But if something untoward happens, conditions are such that a confrontation is more likely.''