Arms control negotiator Paul H. Nitze says that his delegation is ready to return to talks with the Soviets within 24 hours' notice. But administration officials say that the Soviets are not likely to return to the talks on intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF). Instead, the expectation among most officials is that the Soviets will some time this year propose reopening the so-called START talks on long-range, strategic missiles.
This is what one official calls the ''main line of conjecture'' in the Reagan administration at the moment.
If the Soviets do return to the START talks, however, there is no guarantee that they will make it easier to reach an arms control agreement. Administration officials are divided in their views as to how serious the Soviets might be about doing business with President Reagan. The Soviets might find it to their propaganda advantage to resume talks while making no negotiating concessions. They are not likely to want to add to President Reagan's reelection chances (should he run) by giving him an arms control agreement, some experts say.
But Soviet officials have hinted that the START negotiations are indeed likely to be resumed after they complete the ''countermeasures'' that they announced would take place once the US began deploying Pershing II missiles in Western Europe.
Both sides are reviewing their options, and officials in both Moscow and Washington have hinted that it might be possible for the two sides to reach an interim agreement that would be more limited in scope than the ambitious type of agreement President Reagan first proposed.
The Soviets have also indicated, however, that if they do go back to the START talks, they will want to address in those talks the question of the American deployments in Europe of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs).
''Now that we have begun deployments . . . , it is possible that they would want to return to the START negotiations,'' Ambassador Nitze said in an interview. ''They made clear that they now consider that the GLCMs and Pershing IIs are strategic and should be included in the subject matter of START.''
The longstanding US position has been that the Soviets can raise any question they want to raise in those talks. But the American side also states that there is no room for negotiation if the Soviets insist on maintaining a ''monopoly'' on intermediate-range missiles.
Some senior administration officials are now convinced that the Soviet position at the INF talks since as far back as the summer of 1982 has been based on one fundamental objective: not to make any deal that would amount to sanctioning any US deployments in Europe.
From the Soviet Union's point of view, any such sanctioning of the American deployments might undercut the mass demonstrations in Western Europe, which are opposed to such deployments, a senior administration official said.
Decisions to prepare propaganda blaming the US for ''stalemating'' the negotiations and to prepare for Soviet ''counterdeployments'' were made in mid- 1982, in the view of this same official.
Administration officials are reacting calmly to the Soviets' countermeasures. These have included the modernization of some Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe and the movement of some Soviet nuclear-armed submarines closer to the Atlantic coast of the United States. Both moves have been expected for some time in Washington.
Officials say that while the Soviets may now have placed additional submarines in a position to strike the United States with a few minutes' less warning time, they do not have the capability of maintaining any major increase in submarines off the American coast. The additional submarine deployments are considered to have more political than military significance.
One glimmer of hope for arms control has been the possibility of reaching an interim agreement that would fall short of the kind of comprehensive agreement President Reagan originally proposed. This possibility is reported to be under discussion, along with other options, in both Washington and Moscow.
A senior Soviet official told a Boston Globe correspondent recently that a limited strategic arms agreement with the US might be negotiable by midsummer of this year.
According to the Soviet official, who asked not to be identified, the two sides could take elements of the unratified SALT II treaty which they could agree upon and lower the numbers of weapons in agreed categories. Elements that could not be agreed upon would be dealt with in future negotiations.
But some US Defense Department officials insist that any such interim agreement would have to be based on verifiable reductions in the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
The latest Soviet START proposal had called for reductions by 1990 to 1,800 missile launchers, while leaving the number of warheads open. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has proposed that the US accept the 1,800 figure and marry it to a warhead limit slightly below current deployments.
But Edward L. Rowny, the chief US START negotiator, is mistrustful of any interim agreement that would leave major issues for future negotiation. He considered the 1974 interim agreement negotiated at Vladivostok by Presidents Ford and Brezhnev to be seriously flawed.
In a speech in San Francisco on Jan. 27, however, General Rowny did say that more progress has been made in the START negotiations than is generally recognized.
For one thing, he said, the Soviets have already agreed to go beyond previous agreements that limited only launchers and have moved toward US proposals for limiting warheads.
Rowny said the Soviets had also proposed greater reductions than they had previously offered, indicated a willingness to consider more far-reaching verification measures, and agreed to longstanding US offers to discuss ''confidence building'' measures to lessen the risks of nuclear war.