Caution in the Kremlin

There clearly is continuing doubt and confusion in the Kremlin about Ronald Reagan. Is he, the Russians seem to be asking, such an unrepentant anti-Soviet hawk that there is no doing business with him? Or is his bark worse than his bite and, once he is educated to geopolitical realities, will he engage in meaningful arms negotiations with the Soviet Union and seek to cooperate in areas of mutual interest?

Leonid Brezhnev and his colleagues appear as uncertain about the answer as many West Europeans and Americans. As a result, they seem to be straddling the fence, prepared to jump either way: confrontation or negotiation. Mr. Brezhnev has stiffened his public stance, warning about a heightened arms race and accusing the Reagan administration of threatening a nuclear war and pursuing policies of ''adventurism, rudeness, and undisguised egoism.''

Yet such rhetoric seems to belie some of the calmer realities underneath. Mr. Brezhnev delivered his recent speech at a gathering of Soviet military leaders - something rarely done - and this suggests he was talking as much for a domestic as for a foreign audience. As State Department experts see it, the military probably have been raising questions about Soviet security and foreign policy in the light of Washington's hard-line diplomacy and the Kremlin succession struggle. Mr. Brezhnev's get-together served perhaps to reassure the nation's top generals and admirals of Soviet firmness and to put on a public display of unity between military and party.

Significantly, Mr. Brezhnev did not make any threats; nor, for all his stress on ''combat readiness,'' did he promise the military more money. On the contrary , pointing out the problems of the Soviet economy, Mr. Brezhnev hinted that guns are costly. He exhorted the military to use the resources they have. He called on scientists to maintain the necessary technical level, reflecting Soviet concern about the West's lead in technology. He also indicated that the Soviet Union, despite difficulties ahead, was not abandoning the line of detente - a position echoed by Politburo member Konstantin Chernenko in a conciliatory speech two days later.

While Mr. Brezhnev and his colleagues may be deeply frustrated with US policy at the moment, this does not sound as if they are preparing for a radical change in course - although they clearly are hoping to improve ties with China and thereby ease tensions along the Sino-Soviet frontier.

As for the United States, it, too, seems to be exhibiting a certain ambivalence. Caspar Weinberger's election-eve call for a continued US military buildup was fully in line with administration policy. Talking tough to the Russians after a speech by Mr. Brezhnev was probably seen to be good for Republican politics. Yet it should not go unnoticed that administration actions these days are somewhat more benign than its words. Mr. Reagan appears to be looking for a way out of the Siberian pipeline crisis, for instance. He is also trying to sell the Russians a massive amount of grain.

Does all this confuse the American public? Probably as much as it confuses the men in the Kremlin. All of which is to say that Americans are probably wise not to overreact to verbal fire emanating from either superpower capital. Rhetoric is always cause for concern because it can get out of control. But, for the moment at least, the Russians are keeping their options open - and waiting to see what the postelection climate will bring forth in the White House.

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