Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union to limit nuclear weapons and space defenses remain stuck on dead center. Round 2 of the Geneva talks adjourned Tuesday amid hints of possible Soviet concessions and hopes that November's summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev may yet breathe new life into the arms control process.
But administration sources and arms control experts agree that, for now, chances for any breakthrough in arms talks remain slim.
Negotiators -- led by Max Kampelman for the US and Viktor P. Karpov for the Soviets -- are beginning preparations for Round 3, scheduled to begin Sept. 19. In the meantime, attention will continue to focus on ways to reconcile the differing agendas both sides have brought to the Geneva bargaining table.
The US wants deep cuts in Soviet long-range offensive weapons -- especially heavy, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, which pose the major threat to US strategic forces.
In turn, the Soviets seek to forestall US plans to develop and eventually deploy a space-based defense system, which they see as a major threat to the viability of their own missile forces.
Recent reports out of Geneva indicate GENEVAGENEVA that the Soviets may be ready to permit research, though not testing, of the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). They have also hinted at possible cuts in both offensive missile launchers and numbers of warheads.
But no Soviet offers have actually reached the bargaining table. Thus, despite the somewhat more cordial atmosphere of the second round of the Geneva talks, the essential problem remains: On the main issues both sides are still largely talking past each other . . . at least publicly.
``The whole basis of the arms talks has been changed,'' says defense expert Barry M. Blechman. ``Before [the current Geneva talks], the premise [on both sides] was that defenses should be banned. . . . Now, we're saying just the opposite. It's not surprising that it's taking time to make the adjustment.''
Looking for rays of hope, arms control specialists say there are a number of signs that the talks may eventually move forward. They note that:
President Reagan appears to be more serious about reaching agreement with the Soviets. In addition to dropping the hard-line rhetoric of his first term and the calls for US strategic superiority over the Soviets, he has established more moderate criteria for SDI. Administration officials now emphasize, for example, that moving ahead with SDI will require the cooperation of the Soviets.
``What this shows is a great deal of independence from those who would have the President give up on the arms control process altogether,'' says Alton Frye of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, having consolidated power in the Soviet Union, may have more latitude than his predecessors to pursue new initiatives at Geneva.
Experts note that the failure of the Soviets to rekindle the European peace movement over SDI, together with the apparent unwillingness of Congress to make substantial cuts in the program, may help convince Mr. Gorbachev that this may be a good time to seek a new arms agreement with the US.
And there's the matter of the summit itself.
If the two leaders hit it off -- and succeed in dispelling some of the accumulated suspicions of six years of strained relations -- the political environment for future negotiations may be substantially improved. At the very least, preparations for the summit could concentrate efforts to find a new basis for compromise.
In Geneva Tuesday, chief US negotiator Kampelman noted ``a greater emphasis on dialogue and a lesser emphasis on polemics.''
Despite these signs, most observers say major obstacles stand in the way of progress for future rounds at Geneva. Not least of these is the distrust that still exists on both sides.
``The Soviets are still not convinced Reagan's ready to make a deal,'' says a US official.
Meanwhile, Edward L. Rowny, a retired US lieutenant general and a special adviser on arms control to the President and secretary of state, accuses the Soviets of ``stonewalling.'' ``Right now, the Soviets are not being serious,'' General Rowny says.
The keys to progress, experts agree, will be simultaneous breakthroughs on two fronts. One is some sort of compromise that will trade Soviet acceptance of research on SDI for a US agreement to postpone testing and deployment of space systems.
To succeed here, negotiators will have to dispense with the tutorials on SDI, pro and con, that have characterized the first two negotiating rounds. Instead, they will have to get down to the hard business of deciding what the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) does and does not allow in the way of SDI development.
The second breakthrough will be an agreement by the Soviets to make substantial cuts not only in launchers but also in the number of warheads. ``Launchers don't kill, warheads do,'' Rowny says.
To achieve these results, both Reagan and Gorbachev will have to buck strong bureaucratic resistance at home. President Reagan may have to be willing to reject the advice of administration hard-liners who argue that he should not foreclose any options for future testing or deployment of space-based systems.
Progress may also hinge on the willingness of both sides to resolve mutual allegations of cheating on earlier arms control agreements. In addition, some experts argue for an interim measure -- such as a quota on future missile tests -- as a way to demonstrate good faith on both sides as the talks resume.
Failure to reach agreement after two negotiating rounds needs to be kept in perspective, experts say. It took four years to reach agreement on SALT I and more than six years to reach agreement on SALT II, they note.