The Soviet Union is inching closer to Egypt, a Mideast foe that steered firmly into the United States orbit under the late President Anwar Sadat.
Moscow's immediate objective seems to be to restore ambassadorial-level relations with Cairo sometime after April 25 -- the scheduled date for Israel's return of the final portion of occupied Sinai under the two countries' US-mediated peace treaty.
Most diplomats here, both Arab and Western, assume this is virtually certain to occur sometime in the next year.
In the longer run, public and private signs here suggest, the Kremlin hopes not only for a return to normal diplomatic relations with the most populous and powerful Arab state, but also for genuine, substantive improvement in those relations.
This, various Soviet officials have suggested, could emerge from a continuing US failure to negotiate a resolution of the Palestinian problem, and from a gradual rapprochement between Egypt and Arab states.
Meanwhile, Moscow is trying to be nice to Cairo.
The official Soviet news media, although still generally cautious about predicting precisely where post-Sadat Egypt will move, have said virtually nothing unkind about Mr. Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak. The Soviets have highlighted President Mubarak's move to rein in his country's media attacks on fellow Arab states and on the Soviet Union.
''A bundle of newspapers is delivered to the Soviet press center (in Cairo) every morning,'' said one dispatch in the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda earlier this year. ''The (Egyptian) newspapers are carrying more and more articles indicating that Egypt would like to emerge from its isolation and normalize its relations with the Arab world.
''The anti-Soviet propaganda campaign that the mass media previously waged on a daily basis has also been curtailed.''
On April 16, Pravda ran a lengthy Mideast analysis further highlighting the changed Soviet outlook toward Egypt.
The article, datelined Beirut, was signed both by Pravda's correspondent there and by Pavel Demchenko, the Pravda editor for African and Asian affairs. The authors said they had also visited both Amman, the Jordanian capital, and Cairo -- thus signaling the first known visit by a Soviet figure of Mr. Demchenko's prominence to the Egyptian capital for several years.
The Pravda piece said nothing startingly new, but implicitly placed Mr. Mubarak's Egypt alongside Jordan, an opponent of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty that has gradually diluted its traditional friendship with Washington by becoming friendier with Moscow. Both states, the article suggested, were victims of an aggressive Israeli policy fully abetted by the Americans.
The Pravda article included what has become an almost traditional Soviet caveat that the course of post-Sadat Egypt cannot be predicted with certainty. But, the authors added, ''One thing is clear -- Sadat's obedience to Washington is no more.''
The article added: ''In the event of Israeli refusal to withdraw from Sinai, Egyptian journalists told us, the already existing criticism of Sadat policies would strengthen.''
Still, remarks by Soviet officials to the Monitor suggest Moscow is aware much will depend on developments within the Mideast and Egypt. Any sudden move of the Egyptians away from the US is unlikely.
In an indication of the Mubarak regime's caution, a senior Cairo official March 30 moved to play down the significance of the return of 66 Soviet economic experts to Egypt. ''Attempts are being made to spoil our good relations with the US following the return of . . . civilian Soviet experts,'' the official said.
Diplomats here sense caution on the Soviet side as well, presumably born of a lingering rancor over Mr. Sadat's sudden about-face in Egypt's onetime alliance with the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.