Both publicly and privately the Soviets are going out of their way to play down the prospects for arms control progress when Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Secretary of State George Shultz meet in Stockholm Jan. 18, or even at the larger Conference on Disarmament in Europe, of which the Gromyko-Shultz get-together is a spinoff.
There is reason to take the Russians at their word. Two hours of talks in Stockholm can hardly be expected to break two years of stalemate in Geneva. Since the Nov. 22 vote in the West German Bundestag which removed the last political barrier to the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe , the Soviets have hunkered down with political and military responses they feel they can hold among their own allies - and justify among neutral states - for some time to come.
These positions - termination of the talks on theater nuclear weapons, delay in establishing a resumption date for strategic arms control talks, and an assortment of counterdeployment both in Europe and at sea - are counted on by the Soviets to increase political pressures in the West for a change in the US bargaining position while making it difficult for President Reagan to argue during the coming political campaign that his firm policies ''brought the Soviets to their senses'' on nuclear arms control questions.
For negotiations to resume the Soviets publicly demand a return to the status quo ante . . . in other words, the removal of NATO missiles already deployed. Many observers believe they would at least agree to resume the strategic talks at a certain date, were Secretary Shultz to offer to broaden that agenda to include such unresolved theater issues as the possible inclusion of British and French nuclear forces in the NATO or US totals.
A number of Western diplomats both here and in Washington have attributed the unyielding Soviet opposition to transitional leadership problems at the Kremlin and the extraordinary political power now wielded by the Soviet military.
While such an explanation cannot lightly be dismissed, neither can one ignore the fact that the Reagan administration has repeatedly confronted the Soviets with offers regarding both intermediate and strategic-range nuclear weapons which neither they nor any similarly situated power could possibly have accepted.
It must be recalled that the Reagan administration came to office totally convinced that the existing nuclear balances were unacceptably tilted in the Soviets' favor and had to be altered dramatically.
But from the outset, the chances of negotiating changes in the quantity, quality, or structure of the Soviet strategic forces were remote.
For one thing, nations rarely make gratuitous bargaining concessions to their negotiating adversaries.
For another, perceptions of strategic or theater balances are subjective things. . . . Given America's wide technological lead in many systems, the diversity of its nuclear arsenal, the massive ongoing military buildup in the US , the British and French nuclear modernization programs, and what may be called the ultimate theater disequilibrium - the vulnerability of Soviet territory but not the US to Europe-based theater weapons - it is small wonder that the Soviets have seen no need for compensatory arrangements to benefit NATO and the US.
Since the stated purpose of the Reagan administration was to alter the nuclear balance and since the arms control negotiations at Geneva were inherently ill suited to that purpose, they became little more than forums for the presentation of facially reasonable but totally one-sided administration propositions, the rejection of which was then offered as evidence that only the deployment of new US systems - precisely the result desired all along - could possibly bring the Russians around.
Thus ''zero option'' and its progeny, the latter offering the Soviet Union a warhead equality in the European zone that NATO will not even enjoy after all 572 cruise and Pershing II missiles are in place.
Thus too the President's START proposal, which holds the two sides to equal land- and sea-based warhead limits but which would give the US roughly an 8-to-1 advantage in air-launched cruise missiles unless the Soviets were to restructure their strategic forces so as virtually to mirror those of the US.
Why did the Soviets declare the theater talks ''a dead letter'' while only declining to set a resumption date for the strategic discussions? First, because while the political impact of terminating the theater talks was great, the issues involved can find a home in START, should the two parties so decide. Further, the strategic discussions serve the additional role of keeping both parties within the limits established by the unratified but still obeyed SALT II agreement and tend further to act as a brake upon any administration inclination to terminate the 1972 treaty restricting antiballistic-missile systems.
The Soviets want to portray the superpowers on the brink of an unbridled nuclear arms race but not to actually trigger one. Absent an unlikely breakthrough at Stockholm, they almost will do nothing to encourage the view that progress on strategic weapons control is possible under the current American administration, but they will not terminate the negotiation process with finality.