Washington — The Soviets appear to have become a silent player in the American election campaign. First, the Kremlin agreed to a Reagan administration proposal for a meeting between the President and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko following the UN General Assembly meeting next week. The meeting was set for Sept. 28.
Then, as the Reaganites were quietly gloating over a development with clear political as well as diplomatic implications, it became known that a Soviet academician had privately sidled up to the Democratic campaign and asked if Walter Mondale would like to meet with Mr. Gromyko. The Mondale forces said yes, followed through in contacts with Soviet officials, and arranged for a meeting on Sept. 27, the day before Gromyko sees Reagan.
What are the Soviets up to?
Although the Soviet leadership has no liking for Ronald Reagan, few observers here think the Soviet leadership is trying to influence the outcome of the US election. In fact diplomatic experts in and out of government interpret the Soviets' maneuvering as an effort to distance themselves from showing favoritism in the campaign and to avoid appearing to contribute to the President's reelection.
''It's a desire to be evenhanded and not to be seen as being pro-Reagan,'' says Malcolm Toon, former US ambassador to Moscow.
''They don't want to help Reagan, but they want to cover their bets,'' a State Department expert says. ''Even if Reagan makes it, they don't want to give him the sole spotlight.''
In a diplomatic context, administration officials say they believe the meetings with both Reagan and Mondale signal that the Soviet leadership has in effect decided it must deal with the United States, whoever is president. Given the chill in Soviet-American relations and the past harsh rhetoric by both sides , the White House meeting is viewed as having enormous symbolic importance and as being one that probably entailed a difficult decision for the Kremlin.
In this connection, State Department officials are intrigued by a recent article in Moscow about the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, which suggests a parallel to present Soviet relations with the United States. The article singled out the seldom-mentioned agreement of Sept. 28 of that year, which actually delineated the frontiers between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union once they carved up Poland. It stressed that the Russians were under no illusions the Nazis were seeking superiority, and the Soviet Union had to have time to prepare its defenses.
The analogy is pointed. American analysts believe the Soviet leadership, faced with a problem of prestige and image, may now be preparing its people for some sort of accommodation with the United States on grounds that the Soviet Union must concentrate on improving its domestic economy as a prerequisite to building a stronger military. In the opinion of some experts, this suggests that the older, more cautious conservatives on the Politburo may have won the day against the younger leaders who favor a more assertive posture toward the United States.
The weakness of the top Soviet leadership tends to induce caution and a focus on the domestic scene, experts say. Hence the decision not to rebuff the Reagan overture in the midst of the US election campaign, and at the same time, the bid to Mondale, in order to to keep all channels open and not appear to be partial.
Mondale, for his part, is criticized in some quarters for accepting the Soviet offer. The White House and State Department, surprised by the move, have responded with restraint. But Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana criticized the Democratic candidate as making a move aimed at salvaging his struggling campaign.
Some Democrats also are critical, however. ''I would have urged Mondale against it,'' says Zbigniew Brzezinski, national-security adviser in the Carter administration. ''It will contribute to the impression that he is catering to the Soviets and that the Soviets are using the campaign. The prospect of American candidates rushing to the Soviets who bestow their favors is distasteful.''
But Dr. Brzezinski says Mondale handled his comments about the upcoming meeting well. The Democratic presidential challenger has said he will tell Gromyko three things: (1) President Reagan speaks for all Americans; (2) if elected, he (Mondale) will drive a''tough bargain'' that protects American security, so the Soviets have nothing to gain from a delay; (3) world survival depends on arms control, and the two nations must set aside rancor and begin serious negotiations.
Democratic Party aides say the meetings with Gromyko will help both Mondale and Reagan. But, says one official, the Democratic candidate will be especially helped, because ''his policy is that as president he wants to sit down and begin arms control talks.''