The Kremlin has a definite interest in maintaining a dialogue with the United States on limiting strategic nuclear weapons and conventional arms in Central Europe.
But it wants to do so without making any concessions on Afghanistan (such as beginning to withdraw troops), without stopping its ceaseless efforts to divide Washington from its NATO allies, and without giving up any opportunities to bolster its influence and oppose the US and China in the Arab world and the Near East.
Latest evidence of such bolstering is the $1.6 billion arms-aid package from Moscow to India -- a move seen here as shrewdly timed to try to offset US and Chinese interests in New Delhi as well as to capitalize on Indian fears of Pakistani militarism and possible future Soviet moves in Afghanistan.
The arms package is also viewed as Soviet payment in advance for what it hopes will be Indian support of Soviet and Afghan political positions on the Afghan fighting.
This is the view of informed Western sources here. They add their belief that the basic positions of the US and the USSR on the issues dividing them are still far apart.
The questions for the US now seems to be this: how to meet the desire to continue arms- control talks, while making it clear to the Senate and to the public that steps such as ratifying SALT II are compatible with opposing Soviet troops in the nonaligned, third-world state of Afghanistan.
The Soviets signaled their desire to keep the dialogue alive by having Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko meet Secretary of State Edmund Muskie in Vienna -- and by having Mr. Gromyko promptly grant a request for a follow-up meeting here with US Ambassador Thomas Watson. Mr. Gromyko met Mr. Watson for 90 minutes May 26.
Both in public and in private, the Soviets have indicated they want to see SALT II ratified. For them, it puts limitations on the US cruise missile (under the treaty protocol) and also lets them retain their basic heavy missile force. For the US, the treaty limits the number of warheads each side can hang on its long-range launchers (to 10) and forces the Soviets to dismantle some older launchers.
Those Westerners here who distrust all Soviet motives argue that all Moscow wants to do is get back to detente-as-usual while acting as if the Afghan affair never happened. Others take a more moderate view, conceding to Moscow genuine security interests in wanting to see SALT II come into force and in wanting an agreement in the long-stalled Vienna talks on reducing forces in Central Europe.
Some in the US government urge that the Soviets be asked to accept another Muskie- Gromyko meeting in a month or so. They want the agenda carefully worked out beforehand, including the knotty question of whether both sides will keep abiding by the provisions of both SALT I and SALT II, pending SALT II ratification.
For their part, the Soviets appear baffled by the US presidential election campaign. They intensely dislike and distrust Mr. Carter. Some officials say privately that Republican Ronald Reagan may not be too bad. Richard Nixon was a Republican, they say, and his policies toward Moscow are viewed with nostalgia by many Soviet officials.
The Soviets don't comment on the precise scenario they want followed. They are clearly eager to see an end to American diplomatic and economic hostility following their invasion of Afghanistan. The difficulty is that many in the US will see a more normal relationship with Moscow now as a de facto condoning of the Afghan venture.
Lending some credence to those who suspect every Soviet move is the Kremlin failure so far to alter any of its basic positions on Afghanistan, Iran, and other issues.
the Soviets have cleverly encouraged European opinion to think that a shift might be imminent: by the Gromyko-Muskie meeting in Vienna, by the recent call of the Warsaw Pact for a world peace conference, by flying Leonid Brezhnev to Warsaw to meet French President Giscard d'Estaing May 19, by welcoming the visit to Moscow in June and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and by having the Afghan government issue a fresh set of political proposals May 14.
Beneath all the flurry, however, nothing has changed since the initial Brezhnev statement on Afghanistan in January, elaborated on in February, and subsequently repeated with only minor variations.
The Soviets consistently have called on Iran and Pakistan to negotiate with the Soviet-backed government of Babrak Karmal in Kabul and to guarantee an end to "outside aggression" against Afghanistan. The US must also guarantee an end to "aggression." Only then might the Soviet Union agree to discuss the possibility of starting a troop withdrawal.
"This amounts of having the Babrak Karmal government recognized as legitimate , ending rebel activity on the ground by fiat instead of by Soviet force of arms -- in return for a possible pullout promise," comments one Western diplomat here.
"It's clearly unacceptable.
"But if the Soviets want a real dialogue on strategic arms with the Americans they'll have to see the need for a political compromise on Afghanistan. Right now, even though they are enmeshed in fighting the Afghan rebels for the indefinite future, they apparently don't see the need, or want to see it. Or they think the West will cave in and go back to the old days, just as it did after Czechoslovakia in 1968."
Other sources here see the need for Western pressure lasting for several years, substituting other means for the Olympic boycott when the games end Aug. 3.
Iran remains a key issue dividing the US and the USSR. Washington is unhappy at the Soviets' lack of support to free the US hostages. The Soviets worry in private where the chaos on its southern border (in Iran and Afghanistan) might lead.