Washington — The United States and the Soviet Union are engaging in an increasingly strident war of words over just who is forcing whom to increase military spending.
Ironically, this finger-pointing - complete with pledges by each country to match the other in military spending - comes at a time when the two superpowers are quietly negotiating in Geneva to reduce medium range nuclear weapons in Europe and strategic nuclear weapons at home.
It may be difficult to tell how much of the harsh words crisscrossing the Atlantic in the past few days is for home consumption. But there's little doubt that relations between the two countries have deteriorated during the last few years.
In Moscow, Mr. Brezhnev this week used some of the sharpest language yet, charging that ''the ruling circles'' in America ''have launched a political, ideological, and economic offensive on socialism and have raised the intensity of their military preparations to an unprecedented level.''
In Washington, Mr. Weinberger declared that Brezhnev's pledge to improve Soviet technical ability to wage war requires the West to meet the challenge and ''to stay on the course'' of American rearmament.
Simultaneously - as a thrust at Russia - the US has moved to suspend Poland's ''most favored nation'' trading status in displeasure over the East European country's current military regime.
Russia has played its ''China card'' by resuming talks with Peking after suspension for three years.
In this more hostile atmosphere - almost obscured - are two sets of talks in Geneva between the US and USSR. One is attempting to control long-range nuclear weapons and the other to control medium-range weapons. The US is scheduled to deploy is latest version of the latter in Europe at the end of next year.
Things looked better two years ago. Though the US assailed Moscow for its belligerence in Afghanistan and in Poland, it appeared to Washington that the situation was manageable. President Nixon's earlier dramatic visit to Peking and Moscow had softened relationships and produced ''detente.''
The mood changed as Soviet belligerence increased in Europe. And Ronald Reagan accused President Carter of neglecting defense in the 1980 presidential campaign. Mr. Carter, in his last days in office, called for defense spending to increase 5 percent annually. When Mr. Reagan became President, he topped this. In 1981 he submitted budget estimates for a 7 percent annual increase in defense spending, after inflation. Congress accepted the goal despite warnings by Budget Director David Stockman that America faces a big deficit.
Moscow for its part prepared to increase its own military expenditures. The seeds of an accelerated arms race, it appeared, had been planted.
The world has an estimated nuclear stockpile of 50,000 weapons whose explosive force by one estimate equals 3.5 tons of TNT for every person on earth.
At a news conference Jan. 19, 1981, Reagan assailed Communist morality declaring, ''They reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat . . . .'' Some members of the administration have also taken another controversial position, that nuclear war can be ''limited.''
While disputes grew, the so-called peace movement crossed the Atlantic and became conspicuous in the US after being a political issue in Europe. In articles in the New Yorker magazine Jonathan Schell in February articulated the rising anxiety. The latest development appears to be a strong ''no first strike'' movement in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
President Reagan has taken several peace initiatives of his own, like that at Eureka, Kan., May 9, inviting Russia to cut nuclear warheads. But the latest Brezhnev speech reveals the new stage the continuing tension has reached.