The Soviet Union has given what seems a further hint of willingness to consider a key US demand on arms-control accords -- more reliable verification procedures -- despite a tough public stand on the issue.
The development reportedly came in talks here Sept. 17 between President Leonid Brezhnev and visiting British opposition leader Michael Foot, only days before the Soviets' first scheduled talks with a senior Reagan administration official.
Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko is to meet US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. in New York Sept. 23. A day earlier, Mr. Gromyko delivered a combative speech to the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 22.
US officials have long been suggesting they will be pushing for tighter verification procedures as part of any future arms-control accords with the Soviet Union.
The US argument is that reliance on so-called "national technical means" -- such as the signatories' spy planes and satellites -- is no longer adequate to confirm compliance.
In public, Moscow has shown little willingness to go along with such demands. Most recently, a Sept. 18 commentary by the official news agency Tass charged that the US was trying to set absurd preconditions for arms talks, including one "that the Soviet Union should agree beforehand to all forms of control that might be suggested by the lovers of other peopple's secrets."
Diplomats here said, however, that Mr. Brezhnev had appeared to take a slightly softer position in his talks with Mr. Foot.
The Soviet President is said to have told the visiting Briton that Moscow currently felt verification should be accomplished through "national technical means."
But Mr. Brezhnev added that he did not want to exclude possible agreement on some form of further, "international" verification, the diplomats reported.
It was not immediately clear just what the Soviet leader had in mind.
Diplomats still predicted tough bargaining in any US attempt to get the traditionally secretive Soviet Union to agree to tougher arms-control verification. And some analysts wondered if the latest hints to the British Labour Party leader might be another Kremlin attempt to persuade West Europeans of Moscow's good intentions -- and thereby intensify the strain with the hard-6 ine Reagan administration.
But the latest Brezhnev remark was viewed by various Western analysts here as a sign that Moscow was ready to discuss the Americans' concerns on the issue.
Most foreign diplomats here feel that the Kremlin is genuinely eager that arms talks with the Reagan administration succeed.
The envoys say there can be little doubt that Moscow is ready to keep pace with any reinvigorated superpower arms race. But amid Western predictions of the third poor Soviet grain harvest in a row, the wide assumption is that the Kremlin would much rather turn resources towards butter, not guns.
Some foreign analysts saw an initial hint of Soviet willingness to consider US verification demands in a document released by Moscow in August.
This was a draft treaty proposal for demilitarization of outer space. Its verification clause was a near copy of that included in the still unratified SALT II pact, providing for verification by "national technical means" and binding the signatories not to interfere with such methods.
But in an added clause, the space proposal stipulated that "the participating states will, in the event it is necessary, [also] consult with each other, make inquiries, and furnish information related to such inquiries" as part of the verification process.
A senior Soviet official, interviewed at the time, said the wording of the verification clause was not "accidental" and clearly had implications for earthbound arms control.