The prospect that relations between Moscow and Washington could steadily worsen all through 1980 is causing alarm among Western diplomats here. It is becoming urgent, these diplomats feel, that both sides begin at least private, low-level talks to rescue the concept of arms control before it slips out of reach.
One tentative, unofficial "sounding out" approach already has been made. A well-placed and well-informed private United States citizen on an official exchange visit has contacted several Soviet experts at the USA Institute in Moscow after first meeting with White House National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinkis and Marshal Shulman, Soviet affairs adviser at the State Department.
The individual, Alton Frye of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said he spoke only for himself. But Georgi Arbatov, director of the USA Institute, and some others did agree to meet him here and listened carefully as he stressed the urgency of at least some contacts on arms control despite the deep freeze on detente. And Mr. Frye was scheduled to contact White House and State Department officials when he returned to Washington.
The whole SALT process is now in too much danger for comfort, Mr. Frye said in an interview here before he left. And he painted a scenario whose logic is privately conceded by a number of other Western sources here:
Unless something urgent is done behind the scenes, detente can only suffer still more as this year wears on. Already the Soviets are angry at US retaliation over the invasion of Afghanistan. They will be even more stung if US athletes do stay away from the Moscow Olympics in July, and if Washington persuades many others to stay home, too.
Moreover, the US election campaign has seen almost every major candidate swing to the right, denouncing the Soviets.
For their part, Soviet officials say they are angry that President Carter has linked the SALT II treaty, signed only last June at the Vienna summit, to the Afghan invasion by delaying consideration in the Senate.
For seven long years, Soviet officials told Mr. Frye, the Kremlin tried to reach agreement on the second treaty to limit strategic arms. The Soviets made a number of compromises. Then, even before Afghanistan, the treaty ran into trouble in the Senate (especially after the Shah of Iran left his throne). Mr. Carter failed to show the leadership required to save the treaty, the Russians say.
Although most Americans would dispute the sequence of events and some of the logic, Mr. Frye and others here worry about something else: The Soviets now show , in private conversation as well as in public deeds, a new spirit of self-assertiveness, based on their fast-growing strategic and conventional military strength.
For the first time in Soviet history, Soviet armed might is roughly equal to American strength. The Soviets, troubled with an inferiority complex toward the West and convinced the US does not think of them as equals, show in a number of ways their determination to make the world sit up and acknowledge Moscow as the biggest superpower of them all -- or at least as inferior to none.
After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the man who is now deputy chief of state , Vasily Kuznetsov, told an American official that the Soviet Union would never allow Washington to push it around again. These days the Soviet press ridicules President Carter again and again for asserting that the US is still superior to the Soviets in armed strength around the world.
The new power balance means that the Soviets now can invade Afghanistan, then sit tight, hoping world criticism will fade and knowing the US won't risk a war. On the American side, an aroused public opinion urges the President to be tough and not to give in.
A Soviet diplomat in Washington, in conversation with Mr. Frye, came to the point of almost conceding that the Soviets may have miscalculated in Afghanistan and underestimated world criticism that followed the move.
"But," the Soviet diplomat concluded, "I am so glad we did it." His tone and mood matched that of the Soviet press here: The Soviets moved fast and decisively and beat the United States to the punch; the world has changed; no one can kick Moscow around any more.
The tone of the Soviet press about Mr. Carter himself if markedly less respectful than six months ago.Dr. Arbatov even said on television March 1 that the US was showing "intellectual cowardice" by creating trouble around the world.
Dr. Arbatov returned to the theme of "cowardice" in a long article in Pravda March 3. He quoted US political scientist Stanley Hoffman as saying the "failure" of US foreign policy is connected not with its muscles but with its brains, and he goes on:
"Washington's line in every increase of, and unceremonious use of, war muscles does not produce an impression of decision or firmness. Rather, it appears as an example of political inertia and intellectual cowardice at a very important moment, hiding from actual existing difficulties behind old political formulas known to be ineffective."
These are strong words, from one of the leading US-watchers in the Soviet Union and appearing in the country's most authoritative newspaper.
Arms control specialists like Mr. Frye worry that time may be running out for SALT II and that it is definitely in the US national interest to lobby the treaty through the Senate. Without it, they say, the US has no formal constraints to prevent a new Soviet buildup of long-range weapons. It is now believed the joint chiefs of staff in the Pentagon have swung around to favor the SALT II treaty more warmly than before.