The Kremlin is considering whether to merge discussions over intermediate-range and inter-continental nuclear weapons into one set of overarching negotiations.
But a ranking Soviet official says his country is waiting for the United States to propose the merger, and to make it clear why it is ''logical, useful, and possible'' to enter into major new talks when two other sets of negotiations are stalled.
The official, who is exceptionally knowledgeable about Soviet nuclear policy, says the Kremlin is awaiting proposals from the US on possible merger of the intermediate-range nuclear forces talks (INF) and strategic arms reduction talks (START). Both sets of negotiations, which took place in Geneva, are in limbo: The Soviet delegation broke off the former and refused to set a date for resumption of the latter.
He said there are two reasons the Soviet Union is awaiting US action instead of floating its own set of proposals. One, he says, is that ''the history of the Reagan administration'' would suggest that any new Soviet proposal will immediately be rejected.
The other, he said, is ''not a political decision, but a technical decision.'' The two sides need to determine whether the complex technical formulations that formed the basis for the rejected SALT II treaty and for the START negotiations can be applied to a larger set of negotiations involving both intermediate-range and long-range intercontinental missiles.
Whether the United States will make such a proposal remains to be seen.
US officials argue that a merger would blur the distinction between two very different kinds of weapons - those placed in Europe to dissuade a conventional or nuclear attack by the Soviet Union against Western Europe, and long-range weapons designed solely to deter a Soviet nuclear strike against the US mainland.
NATO's new nuclear missiles to be deployed in Western Europe, a high-level Western diplomat says, ''are not strategic weapons for US purposes.''
But the Soviet official said he expects the US attitude to change once the Soviet Union has taken its threatened ''countermeasures'' for the NATO missiles. Those countermeasures, he said, will pose a threat to the US similar to the threat posed to the Soviet Union by new Pershing II nuclear missiles now being readied for deployment in West Germany.
Specifically, he said, the US will soon find that Soviet missiles can hit the US mainland in eight to 12 minutes - the approximate flying time of the Pershing II missiles. Once the US faces this threat, the official predicts, ''You will face the negotiations differently.''
After all, he said, ''You came to detente, not because you liked the looks of our eyes . . . but because you admitted that with a given level of military technology, your present doctrines lost their sense.''
The pace at which these countermeasures can be taken will affect the Kremlin's response to new US initiatives, the official said. And he added that there is now discussion within the Kremlin regarding the possibility of merger.
''We have had - and still have - discussion on merging the talks. As I see it , there is no single viewpoint yet.''
But he played down any suggestion that inertia has set in at the Kremlin because of the absence of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Mr. Andropov has not made an official public appearance for more than three months. Officials have conceded he has been kept away from work because of an illness.
At any rate, the source said, ''In the very close future, from what I know, the general secretary will deprive those who like to grow speculation of their harvest.'' He conceded that the Soviet military has had a somewhat higher profile in the Kremlin of late but denied it was holding sway in Mr. Andropov's absence.
''Our military [personnel], being specialists, no doubt affect the policy in a certain way. Their views are taken into account. And the more tense the situation, the more precious their word is.''
But he said that the military opinion ''is only one point of view that is taken into account. . . . The decisions here are taken on a political level, not a military level.''