THERE MAY BE A BRIGHT SIDE to the arrest and subsequent charging with espionage in the Soviet Union of Nicholas Daniloff, the Moscow correspondent of U.S. News & World Report.

Critics of the Soviet action have focused on the apparent retaliatory nature of the arrest, the taking of a hostage who might be swapped for a Russian operative who was grabbed recently by U.S. authorities. Such primitive eye-for-an-eye dealings between East and West have been common in Cold War history.But it may be more instructive and productive to see the horse-trading in human lives in a broader context.

U.S.-Soviet relations stand at a crossroads. There seems to be movement, or at least the possibility for accommodation, on a wider range of issues than at any time since the days of Richard Nixon. After years of treating arms control as an isolated issue, the Reagan administration seems to be caught off-guard by a seeming Soviet willingness to explore new initiatives on everything from mutual force reduction in Europe to Star Wars research.

It's difficult to see the change in Soviet spirit as anything more than a skillful public relations campaign by an image-conscious Gorbachev. But, in moves such as the recent release of dissident Anatoly Scharansky to the repeated extension of its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, the Russians are sending unmistakable signals that they have a sympathetic side and are willing to show it.

Arthur Hartman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, may have been right when he denied on the ABC News show Nightline that the arrest represented a renegade action by the KGB against the wishes of cooler political heads in the Kremlin. But the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.

The Soviets, having trotted out their reasonable image, must also show the old hard-line side we've been dealing with for years. It's more than just the carrot and the stick.

The Reagan administration simply doesn't know what to make of Mr. Gorbachev's new moves. Will the Soviets make more accommodations or are they simply posturing? It's hard to negotiate sensibly on complex issues like arms control when you can't tell how far the other side will go.

The Daniloff case may be the Soviet's attempt to put it all in context. Yes, Mr. Reagan, the Soviets are saying, this is still the Cold War. It can always get worse.

Take the best deal you can get or come up with something else, Mr. Gorbachev is saying, but do it now. Don't let the old hard-liners within the Soviet establishment regain the upper hand, or there will be no chance for arms control again for years.

Mr. Daniloff may well be a pawn in this game. A pawn used to create a stalemate, which is probably the best we can hope for. Among nuclear powers no one wins with checkmate. But Mr. Gorbachev also should be aware that Americans do not play the game like some other nations. We are not willing to sacrifice pawns for the good of the game.

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