SO dissident Andrei Sakharov is being released from internal exile in Gorky and allowed to return home to Moscow. Such Soviet decisions, overdue and welcome as they are, still come as a surprise, appearing like a cork in a vast sea of barely understood forces within the Soviet system. It may be that Mikhail Gorbachev, as part of his image-enhancing offensive, is using the Sakharov release as a gesture of a new humaneness and openness. The physicist had won the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of human rights, and was exiled for protesting the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. It may be that Mr. Gorbachev wanted to take advantage of adversary Ronald Reagan's Iranian predicament.
More positively, however, it may be that Gorbachev wants to send a signal that he still hopes to do business with the Reagan administration on arms control over the next 12 months or so, or before the next United States presidential election cycle gains momentum. This seemed to be the gist of his talks with Democratic Sen. Gary Hart the other day in Moscow. For some time, better treatment of Dr. Sakharov has been high on the Soviet good-intentions barometer, as far as the West was concerned. In this sense, it appears the Kremlin wants to give the White House some room to get its foreign policy operation back in order.
That restoration may take less time than present circumstances suggest. The new national-security adviser, Frank Carlucci, will be on the job Jan. 1. New National Security Council aides will take over the Soviet and Central America desks. The NSC will be deliberately divorced from the Iranian-contra inquiries. The current ambassador to Moscow, Arthur Hartman, has announced his retirement.
There is going to be a quest for a new, broader foreign policy in the administration - right in the midst of the Washington turbulence over the Iran episode. This will be something to watch. But there is no doubt the American public is still behind anything constructive Mr. Reagan can do to follow up on the Iceland summit proposals.
Domestic troubles of a different sort are also evident on the Soviet side. Riots reported in the Kazakh Republic indicate the nationalist ambitions of Soviet states, in this case the Muslim republics that also include Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirghizia, and Azerbaijan. Gorbachev's ambition to displace regional leaders, like his efforts to rev up a stolid bureaucracy and citizenry, is meeting resistance. How Gorbachev will do with his own domestic challenges will bear watching no less in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, the flotsam and jetsam of US-Soviet relations leave no clear picture of where things are headed. On the constructive side, the two countries announce a joint study of ways to save the earth's ozone layer. The Soviets say they want to join the West's efforts against terrorism. But unable to get the US to follow their nuclear test ban, the Soviets announce they will resume nuclear testing after the first US test in 1987. The US displays anxiety over new Soviet radar installations. The West worries that the new Soviet emigration law will still result in few permits to leave in 1987 - perhaps more than this year's 750 to 800 Jews, but drastically lower than 1979's 51,000. If one had to choose, Reagan's would be a better hand to play, despite the Iran embroglio, than Gorbachev's. And if the Sakharovs inexplicably benefit, who is to complain?