The ball is in Moscow's court. As US Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko meet in Vienna today, the Reagan administration is waiting for the Soviets to respond to the President's invitation for a summit meeting.
United States officials say they do not know whether Mr. Gromyko will raise the issue or nail down a get-together. If he does, the White House prefers that such a meeting be held in Washington, but it is prepared to consider another venue.
Today's Gromyko-Shultz meeting will be important for weighing the current state of US-Soviet relations. In recent months there has been a decided effort to warm up the relationship in a number of areas, such as trade. But the picture is mixed: No concrete progress was made in the first round of arms negotiations in Geneva; the shooting of US Army officer Arthur Nicholson Jr. by a Soviet sentry in East Germany has left a sour note; and both the Soviets and the Americans had some sharp things to say about each other during last week's V-E Day commemorations.
``The record is one Soviet visit here in the last five summits, three in the Soviet Union, and one in a third country, so it is their time to come here,'' says a key administration official.
Richard Nixon went to Moscow in 1972 and 1974, Leonid Brezhnev came to the United States in 1973, Gerald Ford held a summit with Mr. Brezhnev at Vladivostok in 1974, and President Carter met with Brezhnev in Vienna in 1979.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the ministerial meeting, US officials made a number of points indicating an administration desire to make progress toward an improvement of ties:
Mr. Reagan's speech in Strasbourg, France, sought to assure Moscow that the United States does not seek to achieve nuclear superiority or to change the Soviet political system.
In addition, Reagan indicated that the US does not seek to change the borders in Eastern Europe but merely to increase the flow of ideas and people across them.
Despite some tough language in their anniversary speeches, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev exchanged gracious messages on the occasion of the victory over Nazi Germany.
Mr. Gorbachev's hard-line position on the Nicholson affair -- after a positive Soviet response to US demands following the shooting -- may be an effort to conciliate the Soviet military, especially now that the military's power in the Politburo is diminished.
Although it is still early to assess Gorbachev, the Soviet leader is moving with uncommon speed to make internal changes and to consolidate his power. He may be of a mind to reach an accommodation with the US in order to reduce tensions and concentrate on problems at home.
Kremlin experts note that the role of the Soviet military appears to have been circumscribed (even before Gorbachev came to power), a development that could have long-term implications for US-Soviet relations.
New Soviet Defense Minister Sergei L.Sokolov is viewed as less energetic and aggressive than his predecessor, Dmitri F. Ustinov, and does not have full membership on the Politburo, as did Marshal Ustinov.
The earlier demotion of Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, the one-time chief of the general staff, was seen as an effort to keep him out of line for the Defense Ministry and off the Politburo.
All this seems to signal a downgrading of the ability of the military to have a hammerlock on councils at the top, administration experts say.
It is stressed that this does not suggest a substantive change in Soviet foreign policy.
But given the Soviet Union's deepening economic problems and Mr. Gorbachev's apparent determination to do something about them, experts say he may be looking for an easing of relations with Washington.
``If he's pragmatic and a problem-solver, he may recognize that they need a little breathing space,'' says the ranking official quoted above.
``We have to keep the doors open to negotiation and give Gorbachev maximum incentive to move in that direction. But there's nothing in his background that would make you optimistic.''
Diplomatic observers see the two superpowers still jockeying for position in advance of serious negotiation in Geneva over nuclear and space arms, with the US drumming up support at home and abroad for SDI (the President's Strategic Defense Initiative or ``star wars'' program) and the Soviet Union exploiting European concerns about it.
Many in the arms control community see little hope for progress unless the US is willing to trade off sharp reductions in Soviet offensive weapons for some constraints on SDI. This might include limiting its deployment to defense of missile sites.
Administration officials say that, as an incentive to the Soviets, the US is prepared to make heavy reductions in offensive missiles and to give assurances on the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty adequate to meet Soviet concerns.
A fundamental problem, they say, is knowing precisely what it is the Soviets want, because they have an oblique way of negotiating.
As the administration views it, there is no contradiction between seeking deep cuts in offensive missiles and the US policy on defensive weaponry. It contends such sharp reductions in offensive arms on both sides would eliminate what presumably bothers the Soviets about SDI -- fear that the US is developing a first-strike capacity.
If the Soviets' concern is with the US obtaining technology that would diminish the value of their land-based force, they should have an incentive to get the level of US offensive weapons down, administration officials say.
Furthermore, they say, the US is willing to discuss defensive systems and their relationship with offensive arms. The logical place to start, they say, is with shoring up the ABM Treaty, including identifying new defense technologies.
This would give the Soviets assurance that new weaponry could not be deployed unless first negotiated under the treaty.
The Gromyko-Shultz meeting is expected to go into the Geneva negotiations as well as human rights, regional issues, and bilateral concerns.