The Reagan administration faces a complicated dilemma in responding to the expulsion of five American diplomats from the Soviet Union. The administration feels it must reply firmly enough to discourage further expulsions. Moreover, it does not want to signal a lack of resolve, especially at a critical juncture in arms control negotiations.
The administration, however, does not want its retaliation to sour relations to the point that progress on arms control is jeopardized.
The clash comes at a particularly sensitive time, as both sides reassess the state of relations in the wake of the Reykjavik summit. Experts on both sides are making guarded suggestions that the gulf between the superpowers on arms control -- especially on research into missile defense systems -- can be bridged.
But as the past few months have vividly demonstrated, issues that have no bearing on arms control can quickly balloon in importance and derail progress in other areas. This time, both sides seem to want to avoid that.
``We are upset and outraged and chagrinned,'' said White House spokesman Larry Speakes of the Soviet expulsion order. ``We're examining the situation and will take appropriate action.''
But, Mr. Speakes said, the United States remains interested in further discussions on Soviet arms control proposals that were explored at Reykjavik.
During the past two weeks the Soviets have allowed several prominent dissidents to leave, including human-rights campaigner Yuri Orlov and Jewish ``refusednik'' David Goldfarb. Moreover, Moscow has indicated that two other ``refusedniks,'' Viktor and Inessa Flerov, will be allowed to leave for Israel to assist Mrs. Flerov's critically ill brother. And Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya was released from prison.
As Muriel Atkin, an associate professor of history at George Washington University, notes, ``They [the Soviets] are sending two different signals now'' by releasing dissidents and expelling diplomats.
The challenge for the Reagan administration, it seems, is to respond to the one without losing sight of the other.
Professor Atkin notes, however, that expulsions and counter-expulsions gain a certain amount of momentum once they get started. ``It's kind of tit for tat,'' she says.
Unfortunately, she says, at times ``reason plays so little part in setting policy'' that the ``symbolism'' of a dispute becomes more important than its substance.
Generally, Professor Atkin says, both sides seek a face-saving move that allows them to claim their point has been made, but does not oblige the other side to further retaliation.
Some analysts claimed to see such carefully calibrated action in the Kremlin's latest move. Moscow expelled only one-fifth as many diplomats as the US ordered to leave the United Nations by the end of last week.
But that is unlikely to mollify the US. The Reagan administration has insisted that Soviets at the UN are in a separate category from the diplomats accredited to Moscow and Washington and the superpowers' respective consulates in Leningrad and San Francisco, and has warned the Soviets not to equate them.
``We totally reject any linkage'' between Soviet diplomats at the UN and US diplomats in the Soviet Union, says State Department spokesman Charles Redman.
``What we did in New York had a very specific rationale'' of ending Soviet espionage activities, he said. ``What's been done in Moscow is totally unacceptable.''
The latest confrontation is an aftershock of earlier ones, involving US efforts to curb spying by Soviet diplomats in the United States.
Earlier this year, the Reagan administration informed the Soviet mission to the United Nations that it had to cut its staff by 61 people, from 279 to 218, by Oct. 1. Later, to step up the pressure on the Soviets to release American journalist Nicholas Daniloff, the US named 25 specific Soviet UN employees that it wanted to leave the country. Administration officials suggested that all 25 were engaged in espionage activities.
The resolution of the Daniloff case -- a complicated swap involving the accused Soviet spy, the American journalist, and a number of Soviet dissidents -- sparked a delay, but not a repeal of the expulsions orders.
The Soviets waited until the official deadline for the expulsion last Sunday and then ordered five American diplomats -- four from the US Embassy in Moscow and one from the consulate in Leningrad -- to leave the Soviet Union by the end of the month.