The Soviet Union wants very much to negotiate its way out of Afghanistan.
But the Kremlin's urge to wind down its three-year-old armed involvement there is not desperate, or at least not yet.
The Soviets remain committed so far to a quite specific form of negotiated exit - one ensuring the presence, and international recognition, of a ''not unfriendly'' regime south of the border, as an official puts it privately.
''Peace with honor,'' one might call it. But the concept goes beyond that, involving a bid to win as part of any negotiated settlement some return on the Kremlin's political, material, and human investment in the Afghanistan war.
A senior official, reviewing Soviet moves on the Afghan crisis since the elevation Nov. 12 of new Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov, says privately the strategy has been to stress the desire for a negotiated resolution, but not in a way involving early public concessions from Moscow.
Thus, Mr. Andropov chose personally to receive Pakistani leader Zia ul-Haq following the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev - ''a clear and intended signal of our desire for a political settlement,'' the Soviet official says.
Thus, too, other senior sources seem in private remarks to the Monitor to have gone out of their way to stress this ''desire'' for some time now. One such official adds the obvious: that ''nothing good'' could come of continued crisis over Afghanistan, and that the conflict had become a ''waste of enormous resources'' and a source of ''international trouble.''
Both publicly and privately, the Kremlin has made clear its receptiveness to an embryonic United Nations bid for common ground between the Soviet-sponsored Afghan regime and its Pakistani neighbors.
Yet on the other hand, Mr. Andropov is reported by both Soviet and Pakistani sources to have delivered no substantive shift in Kremlin policy during the talks with General Zia last month. Nor have other Soviet officials interviewed recently yet signaled such a change.
In what one official portrays as a bid to stress the Soviet disinclination toward early concessions, the Communist Party organ Pravda on Dec. 16 printed a lengthy restatement of Kremlin policy toward Afghanistan.
The article reaffirmed the Soviet conditions for negotiating a troop withdrawal - basically, an internationally guaranteed end to ''imperialist'' interference in Afghan affairs. Such interference has been the official Soviet explanation for anti-regime unrest in Afghanistan.
If further signs were needed of the apparently slim chances for early Soviet withdrawal, Afghan leader Babrak Karmal seemed to offer one in a Moscow news conference Dec. 20. He said Soviet troops would leave only after ''firm, serious guarantees of an end to interference and intervention in our country by reaction and imperialism, until this interference is completely halted.''
Still, the Soviets may be preparing for the day when concessions of some sort will be needed as part of a negotiated package that, overall, the Kremlin decides it can live with.
One element in such preparations, moreover, could be the very moves at creating ''infrastructure'' in Afghanistan that some Western analysts posit as proof that the Soviets will be there virtually forever.
The laying of physical infrastructure - airfields, bridges, roads - really does sound like the stuff of which lengthy Soviet presence may be made.
But more quietly, the Soviets have also been overseeing assembly of political infrastructure. Little by little, Afghan political organization has been remade in the image of the USSR. Mr. Karmal is a ''general secretary.'' He sits on a party central committee. More than this, his workers have special days on which they ''donate'' labor to the state. Young children in Afghanistan, as in the Soviet Union, join ''pioneer'' groups. Ideological instruction has been organized, and since intensified. And a ''national fatherland front'' of amenable local leaders has been created in an apparent bid to create a viable mass party organization.
Whatever the intention of such moves - and officials here are reluctant to comment on such questions - the effect has been to start defining Soviet-Afghan political relations within a party framework, rather than on the narrower basis of ties with particular personalities in the Kabul regime.
A diplomat here who specializes in Soviet relations with the third world, particularly with the Middle East, notes: ''In the middle or longer term at least, this kind of change could well facilitate the kind of leadership reshuffle in Kabul that seems essential to a workable negotiated settlement.''