London — The real price the Soviet Union is paying for shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 is a steady, prolonged, and cumulative loss of the global prestige and image that the Kremlin values so highly.
This is the deeply felt view taken by British officials as a defense against criticism by American conservatives that West Europe is not prepared to take concrete economic sanctions against Moscow.
The officials privately agree that European governments are not likely to agree on coordinated sanctions - even though the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations, based in Britain, is seeking a 60-day ban on all direct flights between the West and the Soviet Union.
But the officials stress that continuing worldwide condemnation of the Soviet action is precisely the kind of propaganda setback that a country as sensitive and proud as the Soviet Union finds most difficult to endure.
It comes as the Soviets are pressing a series of disarmament proposals at the medium-range missile talks in Geneva and defending their human rights record at the European security conference in Madrid.
Soviet sensitivity is shown, it is said, by the strenuous and elaborate efforts being made by Soviet press, radio, and television to justify Soviet actions and to refute United States claims.
''Look at the cumulative effect of the moral outrage we all feel,'' a well-placed official here said.
''There are all the criticisms being made directly to the Soviets in Madrid. There's the UN Security Council and those tape recordings of the Soviet pilots so damaging to Soviet credibility.
''There's the pilots' ban, and the Sept. 15 meeting of ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) in Montreal, which will condemn the Soviets all over again.''
Europeans initially accepted the US-Japanese-Korean version of events. Some doubt set in when it was revealed that a US spy plane had been in the area just before the shooting, and the political left began to proclaim that much more needed to be known about US espionage in the sky before reaching judgments.
But the latest tape recordings released by President Reagan have gone a long way to swing public opinion back against the Soviets. It seems clear that the Soviet pilot saw lights on the Korean 747 jumbo jet, despite official Soviet statements that the jumbo was showing no lights.
Evidence that the Soviet pilot fired two missiles instead of one adds to the sense of Soviet overkill. If, as the Soviets claim, the pilot did not know the jumbo was an unarmed plane carrying civilians, Europeans think someone in command should have realized it.
Officials here also make another point about the impact of the Soviet action on Europe. They see it as a deep embarrassment for the pro-Soviet political left across Europe, including elements of the antinuclear peace movement.
''It makes it that much harder for the left to appear credible on issues involving Soviet positions, or to argue that the Soviets are just another country, morally cleaner than the US,'' a Thatcher government official says.
Certainly far-left-wingers such as the British Miners' Union leader, Arthur Scargill, have run into criticism. Just before the shooting, Mr. Scargill was in Moscow making a speech that warmly praised Soviet disarmament measures and denounced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a ''plutonium blonde'' and the US leader as ''President ray-gun.''
Now that the Soviets he praised so highly have shot down a civilian airliner, Mr. Scargill regrets the loss of life - but holds to his pro-Soviet, anti-NATO views.
He now blames the British press for ''misquoting'' him, and at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) meeting in Blackpool has called for the press to be nationalized so that it can ''more accurately reflect the workingman's view.''
He has been sharply criticized by outgoing TUC president Frank Chapple and by the Labour Party spokesman on the economy, Peter Shore.
But his criticism of Mrs. Thatcher has been supported by the man who seems likely to be the next Labour Party leader, left-winger Neil Kinnock. On Aug. 28, before the Korean plane was shot down, Mr. Kinnock was asked whether he considered the Soviet Union or the US a greater threat. He replied, ''There is an almost miserable equity of threat.''
The antinuclear peace groups themselves argue that, in fact, the loss of the Korean plane means it is even more urgent now to avoid the possibility of an accidental nuclear war.
In West Germany, ''The shooting has reinforced everyone's own prejudices,'' says Theo Sommer, editor of the respected weekly Die Zeit in Hamburg.
''The peace people say, 'Just imagine if it had been nuclear rockets,' and the conservatives say, 'Now you see how awful the Russians really are.' ''
In France, a far-left Socialist official, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, denounced the shooting of the plane but added, ''Andropov is not Hitler.''
In Rome, the Communist Party already takes an independent anti-Soviet line on many issues. Its newspaper, Unita, wrote of its ''astonishment'' at the Soviet action.