Despite its rhetorical slugfest with the new US administration, the Soviet Union still seems to want and need detente . . . by the bushel. Wheat may weigh more than words in setting Kremlin policy toward Washington in coming weeks.
Analysts here suspect the Kremlin will be watching, in particular, for Mr. Reagan's promised reevaluation of the US grain embargo, imposed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Moscow has been reacting acidly to what it terms the "anti-Soviet campaign" of the new men in Washington. Soviet newspapers have pointedly likened the Reagan team's public criticism to the vocal human-rights campaign that helped sour relations between the USSR and Washington in the early weeks of the former Carter administration.
But Soviet leaders still seem inclined to judge Mr. Reagan more by what he does than by what he says. What ultimately count, the official news agency Tass wrote Feb. 2, are "really important matters . . . in adjustment of American-Soviet relations."
Arms control is clearly, in the Soviet view, one of these issues. Moscow Radio wasted no time Feb. 4 in criticizing suggestions from the new US defense secretary that he would reconsider the Carter administration's decision to scrap plans for a neutron bomb.
The wheat embargo surely also figures on the list. Tass has suggested as much in reproducing recent snippets of US support for lifting the grain sanctions.
The embargo limited the Soviets to 8 million tons of US grain they had already contracted for 1980 -- slightly less than one-third the amount Moscow had planned to buy from the Americans.
As it happened, total Soviet grain production for 1980 was about 189 million tons -- 45 million short of the target.
Despite the embargo, official priorties here are such that the Soviet people still seemed to be getting their daily bread.
Argentina and several other countries have proved willing sanctions-busters. The Soviets are estimated to have imported a total of some 31 million tons of grain during the year, managing in the process to just about compensate for the portion they would have bought from the US. Western estimates on that count still differ slightly, however.
But the sanctions -- along with more familiar recent problems like a poor domestic harvest and even poorer economic mismanagement -- clearly did hurt the Soviets.
Diplomats and foreign businessmen here say there can be little doubt the Soviets had to pay more for their grain because of the US embargo. The difference presumably was made up in hard currency needed to finance other Soviet imports.
Farmers, meanwhile, are said to have been forced to slaughter large numbers of farm animals because of the unavailability of grain stocks. Moscow officials deny this, but the acknowledged meat production figures are slightly down.
Shoppers were apt to find poorly stocked meat counters even in Moscow, which is usually better supplied than the rest of the nation. The newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya reported Feb. 3 that about a third of the Russian Federation , the USSR's largest constituent republic, was short of animal feed.
Western experts say there is evidence that the drive of offset the shortage of US grain supplies forced the Soviets to round up just about any sea transport available. This Reportedly has meant straining the country's already hard-pressed port facilities with small vessels crammed with imported grain.
"That surely meant a great deal of spoilage, a problem the Soviets have even with handling their own grain production," one diplomat said. "In addition the port situation could interfere with imports of other goods."
That would not be the best of news for a Kremlin gearing up for a much-heralded Communist Party congress that is expected, among other things, to mandate an improvement in Soviet consumer supplies.
The official view of the grain situation, as reflected in the Communist Party organ Pravda last Dec. 16, remains that the US embargo has "failed.'
Yet even the Pravda commentary suggested US sanctions had at least complicated the endemic problems of Soviet agriculture. The embargo "does make us have second thoughts about the advisability of large-scale wheat purchases," the newspaper said.
The embargo also seems to have been one catalyst for an all-out official campaign to shore up domestic grain production.
The Pravda commentary served as something of a catalog of problems down on the Soviet farm. Among those anticipated for the spring planting were a shortage of tractor drivers and a lack of parts for the tractors as well as bottlenecks in distributing seed.
"Not all the seeds are of high quality," wrote Pravda, adding, "more attention should be given to fertilizers and to their proper storage."
Finally the newspaper seemed to call for a little old-fashioned worker incentive -- in its words, "moral and material stimulation."
Western analyst have argued that one major problem with Soviet agriculture is the unwieldy centralized economy of which it is part. They point to much higher yields from the small percentage private plots.