Judging by what has appeared in the state-run press, Soviet leaders believe that the outcome of the new round of arms control talks in Geneva will depend on whether the United States abandons President Reagan's "Star Wars" research on space weapons.
Without such a concession from the Americans, there can be no hope for success in the negotiations, for agreement to drop "Star Wars" holds the key to agreement on sharp reductions in all kinds of nuclear weapons, according to the Kremlin's current line.
Whether Moscow's stand is actually as inflexible as these public statements suggest is uncertain. Six months ago, some of the same Soviet commentators were saying that the Soviet Union would not go to Geneva unless the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stopped deploying U.S.-supplied Pershing 2 and cruise missiles in Western Europe.
Now, despite continuing deployment of the missiles, Moscow is entering the new negotiations and has dropped virtually all references to European missiles in its propaganda.
Such zigs and zags in the Kremlin line, along with a dedication to secrecy, always make it difficult to forecast what Soviet leaders are likely to do. This is true to an even greater extent in connection with the Geneva talks.
"They're playing their cards close to the vest, as usual," said a diplomat who monitors arms control developments.
If the abortive 1982-83 negotiations are any guide, however, the Soviets may propose limits on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. And on the basis of their antipathy to missiles in Western Europe, they may also want to put a ceiling on intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
"We may not be safer, but we would feel safer if those (U.S.) missiles were taken out of Western Europe," a Soviet official told a Western correspondent, "and that may be possible only under an overall agreement where we cut back on missiles in Eastern Europe, too."
The Kremlin's insistence on ending U.S. research on space weapons, however, has become the dominant theme in Moscow on the eve of the Geneva talks. And specialists here differ in their assessment of what this foreshadows for the negotiations.
"It's a phony (issue), and it should be labeled as such," a Western diplomat said, adding that the Soviet Union has for years conducted the same kind of research that it now condemns as destabilizing.
"They know the space weapons program will take years before actual deployment can begin," another diplomat said. "Presumably they're going to be talking about existing weapons as well, but we'll only know that when they get to the bargaining table."
The recent focus on "Star Wars" is seen in part as an effort to regain the public relations advantage for the Soviet Union after its walkout from arms control talks in November, 1983. But it also reflects deep Soviet concern over the possible development of a U.S. capability to carry out a nuclear attack and be protected from Soviet retaliation.
'An Aggressive Plan'
"This ("Star Wars") plan, frankly speaking, is an aggressive plan," Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko has told the Soviet people. "We will fight to the end on this matter."
As the Soviet leaders see it, there is now military and strategic parity between the superpowers and, as Gromyko said, "we shall not allow the existing parity to be altered to the detriment of our security."
Yet, despite the repeated questioning of U.S. sincerity and doubts about the prospects for reaching agreement at Geneva, a more optimistic view has been expressed by ailing Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko.
Almost belying the stream of editorials and commentaries in the government newspapers and radio broadcasts, Chernenko said: "There is no shortage of gloomy forecasts that doom the (Geneva) negotiations to failure in advance, but we do not share them. Agreement is absolutely necessary and quite possible."
Gromyko expressed the same thought in a more low-key way, saying: "We take a realistic view of the existing difficulties. . . . If (the United States) does not create artificial difficulties and shows the necessary restraint, . . . positive results may be achieved."
In addition to a ban on space weapons research and deployment, the Kremlin has called for a complete halt to nuclear testing and a freeze on existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
Soviet officials have insisted on absolute linkage among the three sets of talks--on strategic weapons, intermediate-range weapons and defensive space weapons. Without progress in the space field, the officials have said, there can be no forward movement in either of the other two areas.
But it has been traditional in Soviet diplomacy for negotiators to await proposals from the other side rather than take the initiative themselves.
Both sides have predicted in advance that the talks will be long and difficult, with the usual mixture of propaganda posturing and real negotiating.
"There's a greater eagerness to move things forward on the U.S. side, while the Soviets tend to be more patient," one diplomat said.
Even as the Geneva bargaining begins, there is uncertainty in Moscow about the health of President Chernenko, who took office only 13 months ago. After being out of sight for two months, he seemed weak and pale in two recent television appearances. Chernenko apparently suffers from emphysema, a lung ailment that forces him to fight for breath at times.
Western analysts say they expect the talks to proceed, perhaps for years, on the basis of policy set by a consensus among Politburo members, even if a new leader should take over from Chernenko.
"I think the power here has been collegial since Stalin," a high-ranking Western diplomat said. "Various people get more power, but no one has ever been as powerful as he was."