Moscow has mounted its propaganda guns alongside Argentina, a key grain supplier, in the Falkland Islands dispute - but it still seems leery of direct involvement.
As Argentina and Britain pursue their 20th-century saber-rattling, with the Americans uncomfortably in the middle, Soviet propagandists are having what one Latin American diplomat terms ''a very good time over the whole thing.''
This has seemed particularly true since Argentina threatened further to complicate Washington's already-precarious tightrope act over the crisis by invoking a 1947 treaty provision for pan-American backing against external aggression.
Soviet news media coverage of the Argentine move has very nearly chortled over Washington's resultant diplomatic predicament. A dispatch late April 21 from the Soviet news agency Tass, for instance, quoted unidentified ''observers'' as noting that ''the United States needs the inter-American treaty on mutual assistance when its invocation suits Washington's aims. . . . On the contrary, the Washington administration prefers to diregard it, when its provisions are at variance with its (American) interests.''
Generally, the Soviet media have focused their attention on the British and American roles in the South Atlantic conflict, virtually ignoring Argentina's April 2 military seizure of the disputed archipelago.
Britain is portrayed as yearning for an empire whose time has passed, and as resisting Argentine moves for a negotiated resolution of the crisis. The Americans are accused of masquerading as mediators while, in fact, siding squarely with the British ''colonialists.''
In words, at least, the Soviets are siding with Argentina. This is not unreasonable, since Argentina eagerly stepped in to ease the effects of a Carter administration grain embargo against the Soviet Union and continues to provide a large chunk of Moscow's keenly sought grain imports.
Yet in terms of practical policy moves, at least so far, the Kremlin has seemed a good deal more cautious than its propagandists.
Western diplomats here point out that the Soviet delegate to the United Nations merely abstained on a Security Council resolution calling for Argentina to withdraw its invasion force from the disputed islands. The Soviet Foreign Ministry has told foreign reporters Moscow is ''neutral'' in the conflict, apparently moving to mute the effect of a decidedly slanted propaganda strategy.
Western diplomats do say there is no reason to doubt reports that Soviet satellites are passing intelligence data on the approaching British fleet to the Argentines, and that at least two Soviet submarines are on watch in the South Atlantic.
But one European envoy remarked: ''This, in terms of Soviet meddling, is pretty low-level fare, and not really surprising.'' Another diplomat argued it would be puzzling had the Soviets not dispatched a submarine or two for a look at Britain's largest-ever peacetime naval move.
So far the Soviets have taken a generally low diplomatic profile over the crisis and have not, for instance, held any known high-level consultations with the Argentines.
''Making all the right propaganda noises for Argentina is one thing,'' said a Western diplomat here. ''Going much further, in terms of direct practical involvement, would be something else again.''
Whether the Kremlin does take this further step is seen here as depending in large part on developments in the crisis, itself.
A second factor, in the view of diplomats, will be the overall course of Soviet-American relations. But the wide assumption is that only a further downturn of major proportions would be likely to sway the Kremlin toward more direct involvement in the South Atlantic conflict.
For the time being, the Soviets would appear to have ample reasons to think twice about expanded involvement, however.
For one thing, the Soviets - even by the evidence of their otherwise sharp media commentaries - appear reluctant to be seen as endorsing outright Argentina's military move against the disputed territory.
Moreover, the No. 1 foreign-policy issue for the Kremlin clearly remains that of East-West relations -- particularly, superpower relations. The Soviets' longtime strategy on this front has been to encourage strains between the Reagan administration and its NATO allies in Western Europe in the hope that Euroqean pressure will help moderate US policy toward Moscow.
Britain's West European partners have uniformly backed London over the dispute with Argentina.