Moscow, with little effort, has been enjoying at least an atmospheric improvement in relations with two key United States allies in the Mideast. But the development, involving Egypt and Saudi Arabia, seems so far unlikely to lead to anything like a ''tilt'' toward Moscow by two states long at odds with the Kremlin.
What is more likely, particularly with Egypt, is reestablishment of full, formal diplomatic ties. ''We would like this,'' said a Soviet Mideast specialist interviewed Jan. 19. ''It is to be hoped only that the Egyptians will speed up the process'' by restoring ambassadorial-rank representation in Moscow.
At the same time, there have been signs in the Soviet news media of friction between Moscow and a publicly more supportive Arab leader - Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat.
All this seems largely to be part of a process of Mideast countries playing one superpower against the other, amid intensified diplomatic activity there after Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
The familiar problem for the Soviets is that the key parties so far seem more interested in grabbing Washington's attention and favor than Moscow's.
The Soviet strategy seems mainly to be wait and see, on the assumption that a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict is not around the corner and that, sooner or later, the US will pay politically in the Arab world for failing to deliver one.
Foreign diplomats report the Soviets are providing improved anti-aircraft missiles to Syria - something implicitlyUFquoteMoscow has long shown concern not to nudge the Syrians toward a military showdown with Israel, most recently during the invasion of Lebanon.
confirmed in the Moscow press Jan. 19. But the envoys' current assumption is that the move is intended more as a political than a military one.
A presumed aim is to shore up Soviet credibility within the Arab world; another, to emphasize ties with Syria at a time when both Moscow and Damascus have reason to suspect their nominal ally, the PLO, of taking at least an interested look at prospects for a US-mediated Mideast settlement.
Moscow has long shown concern not to nudge the Syrians toward a military showdown with the Israelis, most recently during the invasion of Lebanon. But senior officials have not been available for comment so far on the reported dispatch of missiles to Syria.
A Western diplomat commented: ''We are assuming that the Soviets, while obviously risking trouble by miscalculation, are providing the weapons on terms designed to reduce that possibility as much as possible.''
Meanwhile, the Soviets have been enjoying the fruits of a seeming bid by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to win greater US diplomatic pressure on Israel.
The Saudi foreign minister traveled to Moscow late last year, the first known visit by a senior Saudi official since diplomatic ties with the Soviets lapsed in the late 1930s. He visited only as part of an Arab League delegation but took time out to meet separately with his Soviet equal.
The Egyptians - noting the Soviets' acting, and largely ceremonial, president received only Egypt's envoy among Arab visitors for Leonid Brezhnev's funeral last year - have in effect been returning the compliment.
A key aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Osama al-Baz, has received two prominent Soviet visitors in recent weeks: journalist and Mideast expert Igor Belayev; and Anatoli Gromyko, an African affairs specialist and son of the Soviet foreign minister.
Egyptian officials, including Mr. Mubarak, have on six recent occasions endorsed the concept of normalization with Moscow, as long as it is not at the price of Egyptian-US relations.
Various Soviet officials suggest privately their main initial hope is for reestablishment of full, formal ties with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians have an embassy here, but no ambassador. The Saudis have no embassy.