The first high-level United States--Soviet meeting in nearly half a year takes place this week as President Reagan launches a new effort to improve relations with Moscow.
But his new move is a mixed one: The administration is emphasizing conciliatory rhetoric at the moment, but it is also pointing to possible Soviet violations of arms control agreements.
The future of now-suspended nuclear arms control negotiations could depend on the outcome of the meeting in Stockholm tomorrow between US Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko.
US-Soviet relations have been in a state of deep chill since the Soviets shot down a South Korean civilian airplane last Sept. 1. A Shultz-Gromyko meeting in early September was devoted mostly to a fruitless discussion of that incident.
The hard-line signals coming from Moscow prior to this week's Stockholm meeting have not been promising. The signals coming from Washington, however, have been both critical of the Soviets and hopeful.
In a major speech to be delivered in the East Room of the White House today, President Reagan is expected to refer only briefly to the issue of possible arms control violations. A senior White House official said over the weekend that the President will use the occasion to affirm the readiness of the United States to pursue ''a constructive and realistic dialogue with the Soviet Union.'' Such a dialogue, the official said, would be aimed at establishing ''a stable and mutually beneficial long-term relationship.''
Speaking to reporters on the understanding that he not be identified, the official indicated Reagan will expand on an earlier theme that the US has never been further from the threat of war with the Soviets than it is today - an assertion which refutes charges made by Democratic presidential candidates. Because of America's heightened military power, according to Reagan, there is less danger now that the Soviet Union will question US strength and try to challenge it.
Reagan is expected to say there is no alternative to ''credible deterrence and peaceful competition'' with the Soviets, which could lead to areas of ''constructive cooperation.''
The moderate tone of today's speech marks a departure from the sharp rhetoric of some previous Reagan statements. In an interview with Time magazine published at the beginnning of this month, Reagan said he would no longer call the Soviet Union ''the focus of evil.''
The change in rhetoric is likely to be welcomed by leaders of West European governments, many of whom have felt, unlike Reagan, that the West had benefited from the earlier period of detente.
But Democratic presidential candidates are likely to charge that the speech is aimed more at the American electorate than it is at the Soviets. Polls taken late last year showed that many Americans fear an East-West confrontation.
Some critics of the administration are already asking why the report on possible Soviet violations of arms control agreements had to be sent to Congress on the eve of the Shultz-Gromyko meeting in Stockholm. They ask how the Soviets can be expected to respond in a conciliatory fashion if they are being given mixed signals from Washington - moderate rhetoric mixed with charges of violations. Mr. Shultz has said he would like to discuss ''a full range of issues'' with Mr. Gromyko, including arms control.
There apparently was considerable debate among top-level administration officials over when to send the congressionally mandated report on violations to Capitol Hill.
In the end, President Reagan seems to have decided it was best to begin briefing Congress on possible arms control violations before his speech and the Shultz-Gromyko meeting rather than appear to be ducking the issue.
But some conservatives, such as Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho, are not likely to be happy until the administration produces and publicizes a major white paper on alleged violations of the unratified SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) treaty.