MOSCOW'S crocodile tears for Libya have been intriguing. On the one hand, the Soviets exploited the propaganda advantages stemming from the United States air strikes. Moscow tut-tutted over President Reagan's poisoning of the international atmosphere. It opted out of a summit planning meeting between Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
Thus it made some points with those third-world countries which offered a predictably shrill anti-Reagan, pro-Qaddafi chorus.
Moscow's real target, however, was the Western Europeans who had engaged in public hand-wringing over Qaddafi but come up with no antidote.
The US air strikes against Libya had left these countries jittery. Moscow encouraged their concern. By pretending that the summit meeting was threatened, Moscow sought to increase Western European apprehension and further the Soviets' long-term goal of splitting the US and its allies.
While exploiting the propaganda windfall, however, Moscow had in fact carefully distanced itself from Libya.
Growing US frustration with Libya, and implicitly the prospect of American retaliatory action, had been discussed in advance with the Soviets. It was the subject of talks between Secretary Shultz and departing Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin earlier this month, and perhaps was discussed by Mr. Dobrynin and President Reagan. The Soviets signaled publicly that they would not intervene militarily on Colonel Qaddafi's behalf.
By the time President Reagan ordered military action against Libya, the Soviets had moved their own ships in Libya out of the line of fire. So far as can be judged, there was no advance Soviet warning to the Libyans.
So much for Soviet support of Libya.
Meanwhile, the postponement of the Shultz-Shevardnadze meeting was good theater by the Soviets, but by no means fatal for the summit meeting. It may not have affected at all the timing the Soviets had in mind for the summit.
One little-remarked-upon aspect of the preparations was that Mr. Shultz would have probably had to make a return visit to Moscow after meeting Mr. Shevardnadze in Washington. Thus time, even before the Libyan raids, was running out for a summit meeting before the campaign gets under way for the November congressional elections.
What now seems likely is that the summit will be held after the elections -- which was perhaps the Soviet preference all along. Some analysts say that Mr. Gorbachev, preoccupied with awesome economic problems and lingering political problems at home, may have favored the later date.
Although Moscow was going through the theatrics of calling off the Shultz-Shevardnadze meeting, there were a lot of business-as-usual signals coming out of Moscow for Washington.
Vladimir Horowitz has just made a spectacular appearance in Moscow, receiving widespread Soviet publicity. Many prominent Soviets attended. Had they wished to signal real Soviet disaffection with Washington, the Soviets could have played down the recital by the Soviet-born American citizen.
Meanwhile, the Soviets have quietly permitted Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter, to leave the Soviet Union once again for the US. The Soviets could have prevented her departure, even though she had earlier acquired US citizenship. The decision was apparently to avoid a ruckus and any further roiling of relations with the US.
And finally, the Soviets have gone ahead with plans for a group of tourist and transportation officials to visit Washington this month to mark the resumption of direct air service between the US and the USSR. Moscow could have easily canceled this if it wanted to underline displeasure with Washington.
Thus Moscow has been careful not to let propaganda exploitation of the Libyan situation deflect it from Mr. Gorbachev's basic direction in foreign policy.