MOSCOW — Even with an arms control treaty in hand and another almost within reach, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev is said to be anxious as well as elated on the eve of his first visit to the United States and a third meeting with President Reagan.
Gorbachev, aware of Reagan's unshakable adherence to his Strategic Defense Initiative, has lowered his expectations for the meeting in Washington, according to Soviet officials.
His goal, they say, is to make enough progress on reduction in strategic arms to bolster chances of agreement on a second treaty, which would be signed by the President in the course of a visit to Moscow next spring or summer. What Gorbachev fears most is a deadlock on this issue.
Cheered by Prospect
Naturally, these officials say, Gorbachev is cheered by the prospect of signing, after 10 years of difficult negotiations, an agreement to eliminate intermediate-range missiles--the first superpower pact to call for eradication of a whole class of weapons.
But he is aware that these weapons represent only a small fraction of the superpowers' arsenals and that further progress is far from guaranteed. Moreover, he wants to be assured by leaders in the U.S. Senate that the treaty that he and Reagan are to sign this week will be ratified early in the new year.
Clearly, according to Gorbachev's advisers, the Kremlin chief would like to project the image of a man of peace who wants to overcome decades of American mistrust of the Soviet Union, and thus lay the groundwork for better Soviet-American relations after Reagan has left office.
But the brief three-day visit, crowded with conferences and formal dinners, will limit Gorbachev's ability to communicate his views to a wider audience outside Washington. He is expected to hold a news conference his last day in Washington, but congressional resistance thwarted the Reagan Administration's hopes for having him address a joint meeting of Congress--which would have given him a far loftier platform.
Gorbachev's on-again-off-again attitude in mid-October toward setting a date for his meeting with Reagan suggested that the Soviet leader had misgivings about the American trip, and these, Soviet sources say, may not be altogether resolved.
Armand Hammer, the American industrialist who has seen Gorbachev privately and has close contacts in both the Kremlin and the White House, recently summed up the problem as follows:
"Russia thinks America wants to make war, and America thinks Russia wants to make war, and neither country wants to make war. They don't understand each other. They don't trust each other. They don't know each other."
Reagan Seen as Weakened
Soviet newspapers have reported that Reagan's standing with Congress and the American people has been weakened considerably in recent months by such things as the Iran-Contra scandal, polls reflecting declining popularity and fallout from the Wall Street crash.
Gorbachev has said publicly that there is time to deal with Reagan during his last year in office, yet he is aware that Reagan's effectiveness will be reduced as the 1988 election campaign intensifies.
And there is still widespread uneasiness in Moscow about whether the U.S. leadership wants to move away from confrontation and toward cooperation.
Moscow's concern about anti-Soviet demonstrations in Washington, as well as continued sniping by Republican conservatives at the agreement to eliminate Soviet and American intermediate nuclear forces, have produced an unusually subdued mood here on the eve of the meeting.
"The negotiations on the INF (intermediate nuclear forces) treaty have been a great success, but the atmosphere somehow is not as good as the agreement," Roy Medvedev, an independent Soviet historian, said recently.
The controversy in Washington over whether Gorbachev should address a joint meeting of Congress underscored the divided nature of American opinion on future superpower relations and contributed to Soviet unease over the visit.
Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, charged recently that anti-Soviet critics had "solid support from the ruling forces in America."
There is increasing Soviet concern, too, over whether the INF treaty will be ratified by the Senate.
Kremlin Proposal Rebuffed
"Naturally," a U.S. diplomat here said, "the Soviet side would be happier with universal applause for the (INF) agreement and Gorbachev's appearance, but that's simply not the way our system works."
Gorbachev has voiced optimism about the prospects for reaching agreement in Washington on a second treaty that would reduce long-range nuclear weapons by 50% on both sides and extend the 1972 treaty on anti-ballistic missiles, or ABMs.
But U.S. officials have rebuffed a Kremlin proposal to extend the ABM treaty for 10 years as a condition for halving the arsenals of long-range missiles, because extending the ABM treaty would hamper development of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called Star Wars missile defense system.