The United States and the Soviet Union are inching -- not running -- toward another summit meeting. No date for a summit this year was announced after a 75-minute meeting yesterday between President Reagan and outgoing Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. But US Secretary of State George P. Shultz said he will meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Washington in mid-May to lay the groundwork for the second superpower get-together, to take place in the United States.
The Soviets are thus keeping the door open, even though they voice disappointment over the lack of progress on arms control and over the uneasiness that has developed in US-Soviet relations since the Geneva summit in November. According to informed sources, the Soviets say they have ruled out a June or July meeting, as Mr. Reagan would still prefer. A summit late in the year -- after the American elections -- remains a possibility, the sources say.
Mr. Shultz said both sides would like a summit meeting this year.
The secretary also told reporters that Mr. Dobrynin made it clear that the Soviet Union would not set any conditions for the meeting. But both sides, he said, want a summit that will produce ``significant, substantive results'' and realize that considerable preparation is needed for such a meeting.
``It needs to be something that will be successful, have something significant connected with it,'' Shultz said. ``Both parties agree on that. Beyond that, there are no particular preconditions.''
Dobrynin, who has been the Soviet ambassador for 24 years, was paying a farewell call on the President, and he brought a letter from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He is returning to Moscow to take up his new duties as head of the international department of the party Central Committee. This is a high position in the Soviet party hierarchy, and Dobrynin is expected to play a major role as adviser to Mr. Gorbachev.
As Dobrynin met with the President in the Oval Office, the US was preparing to conduct another nuclear test in the Nevada desert. But the test was delayed, according an Energy Department official. At press time, it was not clear whether the test was called off entirely.
The administration insists that scheduling of the test was coincidental. But diplomatic experts tend to see it in the context of the President's toughened policy of putting pressure on the Soviets in a number of areas.
There has been speculation that the Soviets may end their eight-month unilateral moratorium on testing. Gorbachev has said the USSR would halt the moratorium if the US conducted any tests after March 31.
Asked whether the President and Ambassador Dobrynin discussed the nuclear test, Shultz said the two discussed ``all the subjects that are very much on our agenda, including the subject of testing.'' The meeting was ``a very substantive and constructive one'' and ``advanced matters,'' the secretary said.
Reflecting the Reagan administration position ever since summitry with the Soviets began, Shultz repeated that it is important for both sides to make progress in all areas, including regional issues, human rights, and arms control.
While the US is focusing on the broad agenda, the Soviets continue to regard arms control as the central issue of summit meetings. They are obviously willing to keep the dialogue going, not wishing to be portrayed as the spoilers of superpower summitry. But they are stressing privately that, to make progress, the administration must accommodate Soviet arms control concerns. Without such willingness, they indicate, they will have to make clear their displeasure.
Kremlin-watchers suggest that the Soviet leadership has been disappointed by the turn of events since the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit four months ago. Moscow had hoped the summit would produce a change in the President's militant anticommunism and policies.
But Reagan has moved conspicuously to assert US power and challenge Soviet interests. Among other actions, he is seeking to step up help to rebel forces in Nicaragua, Angola, and Afghanistan. He ordered the Soviets to reduce their mission at the UN and sent US naval vessels close to Soviet shores in the Black Sea. He has also turned down Gorbachev's call to negotiate a nuclear test-ban agreement.
Shultz acknowledged the ``increasing strain'' in some areas. But he pointed to some ``pluses'' in relations since the November summit: a narrowing of positions on intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, cultural exchanges, commercial air flights, and new consulate arrangements.
``So there have been some pluses; there have been some minuses,'' said Shultz. ``We know each other better. And so, as we start the process of rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on these things, I think we have a little bit more to work with.''