THE restrained Soviet response to the American attacks on Libya -- which has been limited to rhetorical denunciations and the postponement of a scheduled meeting between Soviet Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George Shultz -- should come as no surprise. Despite selling Libya billions of dollars' worth of varied military equipment, and giving lip service to Libya in its clashes with the United States, Soviet leaders have been very careful to limit the Soviet Union's relationship to the often unpredictable Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
After unsuccessfully seeking a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1983 (the most Moscow would do at the time was agree ``in principle'' to a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation -- something the USSR quickly forgot when Libya intervened in Chad and found itself in a confrontation with France), Colonel Qaddafi again sought a treaty with the USSR during his visit to Moscow last October.
Once again Moscow refused, although the agreement to send SAM-5 antiaircraft missiles to Libya may have been concluded at this time, perhaps as a Soviet gesture to Libya in lieu of the treaty.
There is, however, another explanation for Moscow's decision to send the SAM-5s.
With rumors rife in the Middle East over a US-Soviet ``deal'' on the Middle East at the 1985 summit in Geneva, it is possible that by sending the SAM-5s after the summit, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to send a signal to the Soviet Union's Arab allies that he had not sold them out.
Nonetheless, despite sending the missiles (and the Soviet advisers to man them), Moscow continued to keep Qaddafi at arm's length.
During the US-Libyan crisis in January, the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, Vladimir Lomeiko, in refusing to answer a press conference question on what the stand of the USSR would be if the US attacked Libya, noted only that Soviet actions are aimed at ``preventing conflicts,'' not at ``constructing scenarios for their escalation.''
The same Mr. Lomeiko, at a Moscow press briefing on March 25 after the US attack on Libyan SAM bases at the Gulf of Sidra, noted only that the Soviet Union had provided ``moral and political support'' to the Libyan people, and would take ``all measures appropriate within the framework of existing treaties.''
The absence of any promised military support in Lomeiko's statement, and the fact that the Soviet Union and Libya still have no formal treaty pledging Moscow to come to Qaddafi's aid, demonstrate, however, that the USSR was not willing to back up Qaddafi with more than words; indeed, that absence of strong backing comes despite Qaddafi's efforts to press Moscow to take a firmer stand by claiming the Soviet Union and Libya had an agreement to ``coordinate their efforts during dangerous conflicts.''
What then of the future?
While Moscow has been long trying to rally the Arabs into a pro-Soviet and anti-American alliance, it seems highly doubtful that they will be able to exploit the US-Libyan clash to achieve such a goal.
There are a number of reasons explaining this irony:
The Arab world is badly split, not least because non-Arab Iran is backed in its war with Iraq by Libya and Syria.
In addition, the Gulf Arabs and Jordan are fearful of an Iranian breakthrough against Iraq, and they depend on the US as their protector of last resort against Ayatollah Khomeini.
There is also the matter of Soviet credibility.
While official Moscow spokesmen have denied any Soviet military presence in Libya -- thus avoiding the need to take action if any ``nonexistent'' Soviet advisers were killed at Libyan military bases destroyed by the US -- the fact of the matter is that the USSR sent SAM-5s, planes, and tanks to Libya (and saw some of this equipment destroyed by the United States), but it took no action to aid its Arab friend.
This may well bring back memories in the Arab world of the Soviet failure to aid Syria and Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
One remedy for this would be for Moscow finally to agree in fact to the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty with Libya that Colonel Qaddafi has been seeking for so long now -- possibly in return for Soviet air and naval bases in Libya.
While such a development would be tempting to Moscow, which could exploit the bases to regain the strategic benefits it lost in 1972 when it was expelled from its bases in Egypt by Anwar Sadat, a treaty would closely tie Moscow to the mercurial Libyan leader, thereby greatly increasing the risk of a US-Soviet confrontation over Libya.
Such a treaty would also very likely jeopardize any chance of Soviet-American agreements in such areas as trade and nuclear arms limitation.
Given Mr. Gorbachev's evident priorities of rebuilding the Soviet economy, consolidating his power further in the USSR, and achieving a strategic arms agreement with the US, it seems at the present time unlikely that he would take such a risk.
Robert O. Freedman, Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science and dean of graduate studies of the Baltimore Hebrew College, is the author of ``Soviet Policy Toward the Middle East Since 1970'' and editor of ``Israel in the Begin Era'' and ``The Middle East Since Camp David.''