Despite polemics over the Soviet arrest of American journalist Nicholas Daniloff and American expulsion of 25 Soviet diplomats from New York, superpower arms control talks routinely resumed their sixth round here yesterday. The atmosphere was sufficiently foul to suggest that Washington and Moscow, having given up attempts to agree on arms reductions on the basis of mutual trust, are now seeking to negotiate cuts on the basis of mutual mistrust. Symbolically, chief United States negotiator Max Kampelman and acting chief Soviet negotiator Alexei Obukhov refused to shake hands for photographers at the opening session.
Clearly, much more depends on what US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze say to each other in Washington today than on what the technicians said to each other here yesterday. But there are signs that both powers are making some efforts to protect the crucial arms control talks from being crushed by excessive linkage with other issues or with public propaganda.
Thus, despite the excoriation by the Soviet news agency Tass of the American expulsion order for Soviet diplomats in the UN Mission in New York, the Soviets have not canceled Mr. Sheverdnadze's long-planned meeting with Mr. Shultz. And President Reagan's retort to Soviet obduracy on Mr. Daniloff has come in New York rather than Geneva: The US is confining the spy feud to the realm of personnel rather than letting it spill over to ruin the arms control talks.
Indeed, on the eve of the resumption of the Geneva negotiations, Reagan -- while noting that Soviet retention of Daniloff ``continues to limit severely what is achievable'' in bilateral relations -- still specified that the US would offer ``concrete new details'' in Geneva. According to leaks in Washington, the hint referred to some new flexibility in looking at the Soviet proposal for about 20 to 30 percent cuts in offensive strategic warheads.
Furthermore, the two superpowers are proceeding with other arms control talks, including the Stockholm conference on preventing any accidental European war (due to end today with what could be the first major East-West agreement in a decade); the ``warm line'' talks to set up routine bilateral electronic communications on security issues to supplement the existing emergency ``hot line'' contact; and negotiations to define adequate verification for any future bans on underground nuclear testing.
Moreover, despite Reagan's announcement last May that the US would no longer be bound by the unratified second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1979, Washington is still staying within the SALT II limits.
Also, in moderation forced on it by congressional budget cuts, the Reagan administration is facing a slowdown in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars''), its research program into space-based defense that the Soviets so detest.
All this suggests that despite their confrontation, both sides are still maneuvering toward a second US-Soviet summit late this year or early next year. As long as this is the case, arms control is still alive.
To be sure, one cynical reason for the continuation of negotiations as usual, even during a period of increased strain, is public relations: neither side wants to be seen as the one that finally killed off arms control. But in a dangerous nuclear era, an equally powerful reason is the central importance both sides attach -- whatever their mutual hostility -- to pursuing those arms limitations that would increase predictability, stability, and, ultimately, survival.
Whether or not they shake hands, then, the Geneva negotiators are doggedly probing each other's positons in an effort to narrow their differences.
All this is still very far away from any ``grand compromise'' of the sort arms controllers have been mooting for the past two years, with mutual restraints on strategic defense being traded for deep mutual cuts in offensive nuclear weapons. But even short of this, the negotiators have plenty of work cut out for them, in exploring precisely what the other side means in the 4 proposals currently on the table: the Soviet offers of October 1985 and June 1986 and the US offers of 1982 (as subsequently modified), November 1985, and July 1986.
In these offers, the Soviets have proposed either radical cuts in strategic offensive arms approaching 50 percent (1985) or a much more modest 20 percent (1986). The Americans have similarly proposed either modest (1982 and 1986) reductions or more radical cuts approaching 50 percent (1985).
The two sides moved toward serious negotiations shortly before the talks here adjourned last spring, when the Soviets dropped their insistence on an unverifiable ban on strategic defense research and on including US intermediate-range NATO weapons in the US strategic count.
On strategic defense, the Soviets want to forbid out-of-lab testing and development -- their position since they abandoned their demand for a total ``star wars'' research ban in May 1986. They would accomplish this by reaffirming the validity of the 1972 ABM Treaty, limiting the number of antiballistic missiles, for the next 15 to 20 years, as Mr. Obukhov repeated Thursday.
President Reagan's counterproposal is to affirm the validity of the ABM Treaty for only the next 7 years, and to envision large-scale mutual deployment of strategic defense thereafter.
Reagan's liberal critics charge that this is no concession, since SDI will not be near deployment until the end of the century in any case. But hard-liners within the administration oppose acknowledging any ABM Treaty restraints on SDI at all and say the treaty bars no testing whatever. The more traditional view is that the ABM Treaty bans prototype testing or development of antiballistic weapons or components, but not research.