THE tiny window of opportunity in the US-Soviet relationship has closed once again. The window was opened more by conciliatory rhetoric in Washington - as manifested by Ronald Reagan's Jan. 16 speech - and political succession in Moscow.
Not that Konstantin Chernenko was mesmerized by Reagan's pronouncement to the point of abandoning the hostility present before his tenure. There is continuity , even inertia, in the Kremlin's attitude toward the United States. Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko remain key voices in the national security policy formulation, as they were under Yuri Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev. The new general secretary even maintained two of his predecessors' top personal foreign policy aides, Andrei Alexandrov-Agentov and Viktor Sharapov.
Still, transition of power in the USSR traditionally creates an element of uncertainty; previous attitudes become open to reexamination and there is a greater possibility of flexibility. Chernenko's personal instincts, apparently less belligerent than Andropov's, have also probably influenced the relative open-mindedness of the Soviets regarding contacts with Washington.
The Reagan administration has failed to explore the extent of Soviet flexibility. It is entirely possible, of course, that even a serious US effort, short of giving away the store, would fail to enlist Soviet cooperation on main issues of mutual interest. Nevertheless, it is hard to get rid of the impression that many of the administration's steps after the President's Jan. 16 speech would only reinforce the Politburo's darkest suspicions regarding US seriousness in seeking rapprochement.
The Reagan proposal to ban chemical weapons is seen as nothing more than a charade in Moscow. Worse, it is perceived as a conscious effort to embarrass Communist Russia in the eyes of the world. The Soviets would be required to open their government-controlled facilities to an on-site inspection on short notice. And needless to say, all facilities in the USSR are controlled by the government. Accordingly, the whole country would be subject to the possibility of a probing foreign examination. Only those totally unfamiliar with Russian political culture, notorious for its passion for secrecy, could expect this proposal to be acceptable to the Kremlin.
US officials say that the inspection procedures they requested are necessary to verify Soviet compliance. Many experts disagree. Even if the administration is correct, was it wise for the President to call for chemical weapons development in the same speech where he proposed a chemical weapons ban? No wonder the Soviets, with their suspicious mindset, claim to believe that the arms control portion of the speech was a cover for the intended modernization of US chemical arsenals.
The President's criticism of the USSR in China touched a sensitive nerve in Moscow. If Mr. Reagan is serious about arms control, Soviet officials ask, why would he publicly appeal for cooperation against the USSR to the embarrassment of his Chinese hosts?
A charitable interpretation is that the President is still not entirely aware of the responsibilities of his office and feels free to say whatever he thinks without a particular objective in mind. But the Soviet leadership is decisively not in a charitable mood these days on anything concerning the Reagan administration. So the worst is eagerly assumed, namely that such US pronouncements represent a pre-election political maneuver to protect the same policy of hostility toward the Soviet Union.
Spokesmen for the administration recognize that the Kremlin is not about to help Reagan politically by going back to the arms control bargaining table before the elections. But if and when Mr. Reagan is reelected, Moscow will be forced to return to negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons, probably merged with talks on intermediate nuclear forces in Europe.
Unfortunately, this optimism comes primarily from the very same people who, only several months ago, confidently predicted that the USSR would start bargaining in earnest once the first American missiles were deployed in Europe. Instead, the Soviets opted to walk out.
Sure, the administration has a point in arguing that new US strategic programs including Trident II and MX missiles put pressure on the Kremlin to seek diplomatic solutions. No reciprocal arms control is feasible without a unilateral US military effort. But equally, the Politburo is reluctant to go back to the talks as long as it assumes that no agreement is feasible and that Mr. Reagan is using arms control to legitimize his military buildup.
Visiting Soviet representatives portray an alarming picture of the US-USSR relationship. They claim there is no hope for improvement as long as Reagan is in office but if he remains in power, so be it. It is not the first time Russia has been confronted with powerful mortal enemies. The Soviet Union is strong and patient enough to survive the current political chill. Eventually the US will bloody its nose, tire of the defense burden, return to its masochistic patterns of self-recrimination, and come to the Soviets with an olive branch.
The Soviet short-term gloom with long-term optimism is self-serving. The Politburo is aware that if it refuses to deal today, there may be no tomorrow. Their dislike for Mr. Reagan notwithstanding, the Soviets will have to deal with him if he remains in Washington for another four years.
There is more to the mood in the Kremlin than Soviet propaganda. The US and the USSR have accomplished a nuclear freeze of sorts - a freeze on arms control discussions. One does not need to consider arms control a panacea to feel uneasy when it comes to a complete halt.