Mikhail Gorbachev must be very satisfied with the outcome of the Daniloff affair. Although President Reagan can boast that he stared down the Soviet leader, Mr. Gorbachev can point to a number of clear achievements:
He has obtained the release of convicted spy Gennady Zakharov under conditions that much more closely resemble his demands than those of Washington.
His idea of an interim summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, will allow him to meet Mr. Reagan without running the risk of losing face if the ``substantive'' progress in key issues for which he has regularly called fails to materialize.
And he has proved once again to his colleagues in the Soviet leadership that his unorthodox policies -- calls for nuclear disarmament and domestic policies that some Soviet leaders have apparently equated with retreat from socialism -- do not add up to appeasement of the West.
Gorbachev has again demonstrated that in a crisis he can be as tough as, if not tougher than, his immediate predecessors. And perhaps even more successful. This can only strengthen his hand at a time when he is apparently trying to divert resources from defense into economic development.
Washington consistently said that an exchange of American journalist Nicholas Daniloff and Mr. Zakharov was out of the question. United States officials had hoped that a decent interval between the release of the two would allow them to argue that there had not been a swap. And they spoke of exchanging Zakharov for a number of dissidents.
Instead, Zakharov was allowed to leave less than one day after Mr. Daniloff. Meanwhile Yuri Orlov, the dissident leader sent to a labor camp in 1978 who is ostensibly being exchanged for Zakharov, will not be leaving the Soviet Union until next Tuesday. So far, Mr. Orlov is the only dissident who is to be released, though a Foreign Ministry spokesman hinted yesterday that others might eventually be freed.
The proposal for an ``interim'' summit allows Gorbachev to extricate himself from a possible trap of his own making. He had regularly said that another round of social summitry was not acceptable; the next summit had to offer some hope of clear progress on the key issues of arms control.
The lack of US movement on arms control made the prospects for progress debatable, and left Gorbachev open to the risk of serious embarrassment. But the Reykjavik meeting, both sides have said, is a ``working meeting,'' not a summit. They have the chance of reviewing the issues of US-Soviet relations, but they are under less pressure to come up with enduring solutions.
In a press conference yesterday, Boris Pyadishchev, deputy spokesman of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, said that Gorbachev raised the idea of an interim meeting in a letter that Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze handed to Reagan on Sept. 19.
The idea, however, was accepted only at the end of the negotiations between Mr. Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State George Shultz, Mr. Pyadishev indicated. Asked why Iceland had been chosen as the venue, Pyadishev replied that Gorbachev had suggested two venues -- London and Reykjavik. The US had chosen Iceland, he said.
The interim summit proposal will allow the Soviets to continue to stress the consistency of their search for a negotiated solution to the nuclear arms race. Although these claims are often dismissed in the West as propaganda, they tend to be taken more seriously in the third world -- an area that Gorbachev, like his predecessors, is actively and assiduously cultivating.
The way the Daniloff affair was settled will also help Gorbachev at home.
Analysts often surmise that while previous leaders have looked to the armed forces for much of their political support, Gorbachev tends toward the KGB (the State Security Committee or secret police). His policy toward the military has in fact been described by Soviet sources as one of ``minimum satisfaction'' of military needs. If this is so, the State Security Committee will probably be pleased with the outcome of the case. It was not forced to back down over Daniloff. Zakharov, who the US says is a KGB line officer (as opposed to a top spy), is back safely. And the release of Orlov is unlikely to embolden the dissident movement: He had served 10 years of an 11-year sentence.
The Soviet Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the Reykjavik ``interim meeting'' will cover the whole range of US-Soviet interests, from nuclear arms to bilateral relations. The aim of the meeting is to give a ``strong impulse to the whole sphere of nuclear weapons control.'' But in practical terms, Soviet observers indicated yesterday that the subject most likely to produce an agreement is the issue of medium-range nuclear missiles.
Although the reaction here to President Reagan's Sept. 22 speech at the UN was generally negative, some Soviet military commentators felt that his willingness to discuss an ``interim agreement'' on medium-range missiles was an encouraging development. The Soviets maintain that such an interim agreement on Europe-based missiles would be easy to obtain.
The sticking point, they say, is Washington's demand that similar Soviet missiles in Asia be destroyed. Instead, these Soviet commentators have proposed that the US drop its demands on the Asian missiles and concentrate for the time being solely on Europe.
But late last week, a Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman hinted at another possible concession on Asian missiles. He said that if the US undertook not to introduce any more ``nuclear means'' into the Asian region, the Soviet Union would not increase its own medium-range missiles there.