The superpowers are warily circling each other -- each waiting for the other to make the first substantive move toward accommodation on nuclear arms. In the wake of speeches by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev marking the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, diplomatic experts see both sides still positioning themselves before getting down to serious bargaining. Each is sounding a tough line, while at the same time sending out conciliatory signals.
Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, the President asserted that the Soviet Union is undermining the nuclear stability by developing a mobile, land-based missile ``clearly designed to strike first.'' But he asked Mr. Gorbachev to join in working to ``overcome the differences between us'' and make progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons. He also suggested the US and USSR ease tensions by quickly reaching agreement on several old proposals, such as having observers at each other's military exercises and improving the hot line.
As he spoke, the President was heckled by several protesters, pounding their desks and holding banners denouncing US policy in Nicaragua and NATO arms deployments. Some 30 of the 434 parliamentarians, most of the British Labour Party, walked out during his address. Many others joined in the noisy protests, but the remaining audience several times loudly applauded the President.
Arms experts point out that the Soviet intercontinental missile to which Mr. Reagan alluded -- the 10-warhead SS-X-24 -- is regarded by the Soviets as the one new missile that is permitted under the unratified SALT II treaty. It has been under development for two years now. White House officials say the President chose to talk about it because it has not yet been deployed and is therefore ``susceptible to influence in arms control talks.''
Both the US and the Soviet Union claim to be abiding by the SALT II pact. The one new weapon the US has chosen to build under the agreement is the MX, a 10-warhead missile that is to be deployed in fixed Minuteman silos. Western critics of the MX charge that it will be perceived as a first-strike weapon by the Soviet Union because, housed in vulnerable silos, it would either have to be used quickly or lost in the event of a nuclear conflict.
Celebration of the war anniversaries has placed political constraints on the process of trying to warm up US-Soviet relations.
The Kremlin leadership, not eager to play up an anti-German theme, yet mindful of the passionate emotions and fears the war still arouses in Soviet citizens, has kept up a drumbeat of denunciation of Reagan's visit to the military cemetery at Bitburg (as if the heirs of the Third Reich lived only in West Germany).
Mr. Reagan, for his part, seemed determined not to let the anniversary celebration become an occasion for a gesture to Moscow that might risk muting the Soviet military threat.
He made no mention in his televised speech of the Soviet Union's part in holding off the Nazi onslaught or of the millions of Soviet lives lost. He focused on praise for democracy and freedom in Europe, the unity and strength of the Western alliance, and the danger of Soviet nuclear power.
``In the short run, we have no alternative but to compete with the Soviet Union in this [arms] field,'' stated Reagan, ``not in the pursuit of superiority, but merely of balance.''
Administration officials say the US-Soviet relationship is complex now, with positive and negative sides. ``Relations aren't doing all that badly but there are more bad vibes these days than one would have hoped,'' says one US official.
Despite stern language on both sides since the Geneva arms talks recessed, and the setback caused by a Soviet sentry's shooting of a US officer in East Germany, there are some positive developments in bilateral ties. For instance, at the end of the month Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige travels to Moscow for joint trade talks. Negotiations continue on other issues as well, including the resumption of airline flights between the two countries.
Also, Moscow may be signaling a slight easing in its emigration policy. Some 160 Jews were permitted to emigrate in April, a 70 percent increase over the previous month. Two slightly encouraging signs, say US officials, is the slight rise in the number of emigrants from the Moscow area and of ``refuseniks'' (those applicants previously refused) permitted to leave.
``We have to wait and see what this adds up to,'' says a State Department official. ``There were blips before and they didn't add up to anything.''
With the President's European trip almost over, the next focus of attention will be Secretary of State George Shultz's meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Vienna in mid-May.
The two will have crucial ground to cover, including the agenda and venue of a get-together between Mr. Gorbachev and President Reagan -- if the decision is made to go ahead.
The White House now stresses a ``meeting'' rather than full-fledged summit talks.