It is becoming apparent that Ronald Reagan and President Carter are fearful that the Soviet Union will help the other get elected this fall. Mr. Reagan said recently: "I think very definitely the Soviet Union is going to throw a few bones to Mr. Carter during the coming campaign in order to help him continue as President."
What the President could do without is to get any praise from the Kremlin. Thus far he isn't getting any -- quite the contrary. Moscow gives every indication of being extremely disenchanted with carter on a wide range of issues.
The official Soviet commentaries on the US election seem evenhanded. They don't like any of the candidates, including the independent John Anderson. They are not more critical of Reagan than they are of Carter and, if anything, seem more reserved in attacking the Republican nominee.
There is this interesting difference in the Soviet treatment of the two candidates. What it means is hard to say. Izvestia, Moscow's government daily, attacks the Republican platform as "hawkish" and "reactionary" but steps back from direct criticism of Reagan.
But the Russian commentators treat Carter just the opposite. They attack Carter directly, not so much for his policies as for his execution of them and for his alleged inconsistency.
One possible explanation of why they are restrained in their personal criticism of Reagan is that they may figure they are going to have to deal with him as president and do not wish to prejudice the future by personal attacks.
When a senior Soviet analyst was aked recently who would be worse from Moscow's standpoint, he replied, "They're both bad."
To me that means that the Russians would prefer not to have either one of them, and, from the standpoint of the campaign, that won't hurt either Carter or Reagan.
A recent research memorandum on "Soviet perceptions of the US," prepared by the US International Communications Agency, concluded that educated Russians increasingly blamed Carter for the deterioration of US-Soviet relations. This conclusion was based on interviews with 70 Americans -- officials, scholars, scientists, journalists, and business people -- who have had extensive recent contact with the middle to upper levels of the official Soviet world.
The ICA study said that the Russians now "have come to focus on the personalities of President Carter and his closest advisers, notably National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski."
It would appear that Soviet leaders expect relations with the United States to improve after the November election, no matter who is elected, on the ground that Americans cannot long ignore the need for "a valuable relationship" with Russia. But the ICA document finds that "there is a strong feeling that the Soviet Union cannot do business with the current President."
One striking fact emerges. It is that on the matter of the US hostages in Iran "Soviet leaders seemed to share Reagan's view that Carter could have acted much more energetically to resolve the crisis." According to the study: "Soviets are perplexed about what they perceive as American inaction. Most Soviets believe that they would have used force immediately."
It looks a little as though the Russians can better stomach a Reagan they don't know than a Carter they have come to know.