In searching for clues as to whether Soviet-American missile negotiations will get back on track, two things to watch for are:
* The pre-election polls next spring.
* An announcement next year that Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov (if he is still at the helm) is making a trip to Bonn (or possibly Paris).
If the political polls after the big spring primaries show President Reagan in a strong position, Soviet leaders may conclude they have nothing to gain by waiting till after the November election to bargain seriously on nuclear missile numbers and other matters.
Some analysts have speculated that a strong standing in the polls would leave Mr. Reagan less interested in serious missile bargaining. But this argument fails to account for the desire of Mr. Reagan and such campaign planners as James Baker to seize the peace issue whenever feasible and thus add insurance to any early campaign lead.
Should the polls show Mr. Reagan's support shrinking come spring, the Kremlin leaders are not likely to resume talks, or might do so in a noncommital way - waiting to bargain seriously with what they could then hope would be a new president.
If the Politburo leaders don't wish to give the appearance of giving in to Washington, it is possible that they might try to enlist Bonn, the cornerstone of NATO's missile defense, in seeking a new compromise on numbers of intermediate-range missiles, missile-carrying planes, and warheads. One avenue of approach could be an Andropov return visit to the one Western leader who has visited him in Moscow, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Andropov has an invitation in hand.
Mr. Kohl has forged good working relations with Mr. Reagan. So has his security adviser, Horst Teltschik, with Mr. Reagan's security advisers. Washington is sensitive to Kohl's need to show tangible results from the NATO deployment policy. Kremlin strategists know that Washington is tuned in to Kohl's needs. So a Kremlin overture via Bonn is possible, if not likely.
There are, of course, other avenues for rapprochement. Russian negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky could be calmly sent back to the Geneva INF talks with a new bargaining position. Or the Russians could propose that the INF subject matter (intermediate-range missiles) be included in the START talks (intercontinental missiles). The START talks have not been broken off. Neither course seems likely soon.
Some arms control experts have even speculated that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko might quietly signal his opposite number, George Shultz, that he would like to talk with him next January in Stockholm about new nuclear arms control ideas. That scenario doesn't seem very likely. While it's true that the upcoming Stockholm parley on East-West confidence-building measures would provide a convenient cover for such a Gromyko-Shultz discussion of missile talks and other differences, it may come too early for either side to wish to use it as a vehicle for bilateral bargaining.
Politburo leaders may not want to rush into serious bargaining before (1) Mr. Andropov's staying power has become clear and (2) Mr. Reagan's likelihood of a second term is also clear.
For his part, Mr. Reagan may prefer to gain the political plus of progress on missiles when it would do him maximum good: closer to the election. Such timing would be particularly useful to Reagan if a return to missile bargaining also opens up the possibility of further steps to improve US-Soviet relations - and perhaps even renewed summit talk.
None of the foregoing analysis allows for the opposite thesis: that instead of superpower relations going from bad to better they might go from bad to worse.
Such a course cannot be ruled out. A power struggle in the Kremlin could cause such a turn. So could a desire on the part of Soviet marshals and their allies on the Politburo to show that Moscow can counter each new step of NATO deployment.
But the history of US-Soviet relations in the post-World War II period more often shows the darkest hour preceding moves to keep collisions under control.
That was true of the Hungarian crisis of 1956 (which occurred on the eve of Eisenhower's reelection). It was true of the Cuban missile crisis, which led the following year to Kennedy's American University detente speech and the signing of the underground test ban treaty.
With Andropov still a question mark, it is hard to forecast Kremlin behavior. But long-established patterns seem to favor some improvement in relations after this latest period of cold war.