The Reagan administration has been put on the defensive by Yuri Andropov. The new Soviet leader - a more formidable and dynamic opponent than his predecessor - is viewed by United States policymakers as a problem rather than an opportunity. Still, there is little understanding of how to deal with him.
Up to now, Washington's response to Moscow's propaganda offensive has been essentially to fight fire with fire. President Reagan himself recently admitted this much in an interview with the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Unfortunately, the US has never competed well with the Soviet regime when it comes to demagoguery. And even a draw in the current public relations battle will mean a de facto victory for the Kremlin.
Andropov does not need West European permission to deploy his intermediate-range nuclear forces. America does. Such permission may prove hard to get - or it may come only at the cost of traumatic domestic polarization in Germany and elsewhere - unless the West Europeans are convinced that the Reagan administration is serious about arms control.
Reacting to Andropov's initiatives with propaganda efforts at damage limitation will not do. The days of the good old slow and disoriented Leonid Ilyich (Brezhnev) are over. The new general secretary moves fast and leaves his opponents little margin for error. It took literally hours for Andropov to reject Reagan's open letter offer to hold a summit meeting for the purpose of signing an arms agreement based on the zero option. The White House had no illusions about its proposal as a nonstarter. But it was still taken aback by the speed with which Andropov pronounced his sarcastic ''nyet'' and denied the administration an opportunity to win some favorable publicity in Western Europe.
There are reasons to be suspicious when Andropov and his crowd offer the West an olive branch. The general secretary, as the Reagan administration has correctly assumed, is not a closet liberal seeking accommodation with the West. Whatever his personal preferences - and next to nothing is known about them - it is clear that the political coalition that brought him to power does not favor domestic liberalization and a soft line toward the US.
Most Kremlinologists agree the the military and security services these days enjoy unusual prominence in Moscow. Defense Minister Marshal Dmitri Ustinov was among the four top Politburo members who chaired sessions of the joint Central Committee-Supreme Soviet meeting in late December. And, unlike the other chairmen, Ustinov was not entitled to preside by virtue of his position. The honor was a clear signal of his preeminent status.
KGB officers are also doing extremely well. In addition to Andropov himself, veterans of the secret police currently occupy the positions of KGB chairman, minister of internal affairs (controlling the police and riot squads), and first deputy minister.
It would still be a mistake to dismiss the Andropov challenge as an exercise in sheer propaganda. The only way to prove that the Soviet leader is not earnest is to engage him in serious negotiation. And there is always the chance that, confronted with the possibility of cutting a deal with the US, Andropov would decide to grab the opportunity to enhance his domestic legitimacy with a foreign policy triumph.
But the administration shows little evidence of being prepared to put Andropov in a position where he will either have to lose the battle for European opinion or display flexibility at the bargaining table. Surely any new US initiatives should await the West German elections. But it is troubling that no work is being done in Washington to develop fall-back positions as substitutes for the zero option. In fact, top civilians at the Pentagon have effectively sabotaged efforts to arrange appropriate interagency studies.
The State Department has not yet challenged the predominance of the Pentagon on arms control. Secretary of State George Shultz has conducted a number of seminars with experts, but he has still not indicated what he would like to do. And, while his closest subordinates say that the secretary is aware that time is running out, they also admit that he is at present reluctant to challenge the ideologues from the Department of Defense. One reason for his reluctance is apparently Ronald Reagan's basic philosophic and intuitive sympathy for those who caution against concluding agreements with the ''liars'' and ''cheaters'' in the Kremlin.
Not everyone is pessimistic about the Reagan administration's ability to put its arms control act together. William Hyland, who served as a deputy national security assistant to President Ford, predicts that Reagan's political advisers will persuade him to adopt a more positive attitude to arms control in order to deny Democrats the peace issue in 1984. West European leaders also indicate strongly that they would like the US to seek compromise solutions short of the zero option.
The stakes are high. There is a real and present danger that if the purists from the Pentagon are allowed to prevail, there will indeed be a zero option, except that it would be a zero option Moscow-style: no negotiated reduction of Soviet forces and no deployment of US missiles. Even worse, Andro-pov and his Politiburo associates may draw the conclusion that, on the one hand, the Reagan administration is totally unwilling to control arms on conditions minimally acceptable to the Russians and, on the other, it is too inept and rigid to deliver on its ambitious deployment plans. To give Andropov the impression that he has a better opportunity of out-maneuvering the US than of reaching an accord with it would be contrary to American interests.