Moscow maintains quiet ties despite cool tone toward US

The Russians are sulking. The Russians are sulking. That seems to be Washington's general assessment of the mood in the Kremlin. While President Reagan sticks to the high road with his conciliatory posture, Moscow is seen as determined not to do him any electoral favors by thawing the present chilly state of Soviet-American relations.

Yet through all the gloom are some signs that the Soviet leadership does not want to cut off all contacts and that there may be arguments in the Kremlin over how to deal with the Reagan administration.

Among recent developments:

* Private American businessmen and Soviet trade officials held a meeting of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council in New York recently. It was attended by high-level Soviet officials, several of whom later met in Washington with Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, national-security adviser Robert McFarlane, and other high American officials.

* The United States and the Soviet Union have renewed their ''incidents at sea'' agreement after talks that American officials say went ''well.''

* The two sides held their periodic grain discussions in Moscow week before last. The atmosphere was described as cool but ''correct.''

Administration officials caution against reading too much into these developments. ''This is not a broad signal,'' says one well-placed official. ''Until the Soviets are forthcoming on other things, I see this more in the cast of not moving to break what is left of the ties of the past and keeping consultations and certain issues going.''

Moscow's propaganda line has not shifted, say US officials. The tough stance on dissident Andrei Sakharov and his wife and the negative Soviet response to Mr. Reagan's speech in Dublin, which included statement of a willingness to discuss an agreement on nonuse of force between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, point to a continuing tough stance.

But the trade talks have aroused interest here. The joint council has not met since November 1982. Last year's meeting was postponed after the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner.

The session in New York May 22-24 brought together about 260 American businessmen and 40 Soviet trade officials, including Deputy Foreign Trade Minister Vladimir Sushkov, deputy chairman of the Soviet State Planning Committee Nikolai Zemtsev, and the deputy head of the Soviet State Bank. Also present were US government officials, including Deputy Commerce Secretary Clarence Brown.

The three-day meeting went extremely well, according to participants. ''It was one of genuine interest on both sides in making the thing work, maintaining the trade relationship and doing what could be done to improve the situation,'' says an official of the joint council.

Two-way trade now runs about $2.3 billion, less than the peak of about $4 billion in 1978. During the meeting the Soviets made reference to the fact that trade is not at its ''potential.''

''There was a real effort to sound positive and not get into accusations,'' says a Commerce Department official who was present at the session. ''Our impression is that the Soviets do not want to cut off things. They even made the point that they had to persuade their own people to get all this approved.''

That suggests to administration analysts that a lack of strong leadership may be causing conflicts over policy. ''The Olympics pullout took a lot of Soviet officials by surprise and they're not happy,'' says an administration official. ''So we wonder if there isn't a debate going on.''

''The Soviet bureaucracy may just be producing mixed signals,'' says another official. ''Or there could be disagreements over policy, with one side winning, then the other.''

With Moscow still maintaining a generally provocative posture, administration officials are not sanguine about an improvement in ties before the US election. But they say they are trying to move relations forward and are looking for Soviet response on several fronts.

''On the nonuse-of-force thing we're doing what they themselves were saying a few months back,'' says an administration official. ''It is on their list of things they want from us. But these things do not seem to make much difference. We have cooled the rhetoric and put out a chemical-warfare treaty - and still they dump on us.''

If the Kremlin is interested in positive movement, say US officials, it could: arrange for the departure of Andrei Sakharov and his wife from the Soviet Union; take the President up on nonuse-of-force negotiations at the disarmament talks in Stockholm; and agree to discussions on a number of bilateral and regional issues.

Asked whether the administration is talking with Moscow about developments in the Persian Gulf, the official replied: ''That's one of the areas we would be willing to discuss with them.''

With respect to Mr. Sakharov, administration analysts say they believe he is probably alive. They say they doubt the Soviets would have officially denied that he died, as some rumors have it, only to have to swallow an embarrassment later if the truth proves otherwise. Also, French President Francois Mitterrand seems to be going ahead with a visit to Moscow, suggesting that he may have received some assurances from the Soviets regarding the renowed physicist's fate.

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