It is now public. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov has confirmed in a major speech that the Soviet Union is prepared to show flexibility in the negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Moscow is willing, he said, to cut back hundreds of nuclear missiles, including dozens of the SS-20s targeted on Western Europe, keeping only as many missiles as have the British and French.
The question is whether the United States will view this gambit as designed primarily to play to the West European antinuclear movement, particularly in West Germany, and to fuel divisions within the NATO community. Or whether it will see it as a move calculated for political effect - yes - but also as a serious Soviet response to the NATO ''zero-option'' proposal worth examining and bargaining over.
Military and political prudence dictate the latter. The Russians are clearly worried about the prospective NATO deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles (in response to those hydra-headed SS-20s). They are worried because the cruises would be hard to detect and because the Pershings could reach Moscow in a matter of six minutes or so. They could thus be tempted to a ''launch on warning,'' escalating a nuclear exchange. You can argue that the Soviets miscalculated badly in deciding to deploy the modernized SS-20s and, especially, to put multiple warheads on them. But that is no reason for not trying to find a way out of what could become an extremely destabilizing situation - militarily and politically.
To begin with, Western Europe has always lived with the danger of superior Soviet medium-range weaponry. The SS-20s have not changed the basic threat, inasmuch as the older SS-4s and SS-5s could also destroy Western Europe. However , when the US and the Soviet Union reached a point of parity in strategic nuclear arms, Europeans began to worry that the US might not stick its neck out to protect Europe and that the USSR would gain political leverage from the imbalance in theater arsenals. Hence the decision to deploy the Pershings and the cruises - but negotiating with the Russians in the hope they would never need to be installed.
That hope still remains, and that is a factor which must be carefully weighed by Washington if it wants to preserve the unity of the alliance. Antinuclear sentiment is growing in Europe - symbolized by the recent protest march of 20, 000 women at the Greenham Common base in Britain. Denmark has now refused to deploy the new missiles. Norway agreed by only one vote of Parliament. West Germany's new conservative government continues to support the deployment but the opposition Social Democrats (who first proposed the idea) are beginning to resist the plan.
If there is no US effort to negotiate an agreement - no willingness to compromise on its ''zero-option'' proposal, which is patently unacceptable to the Soviets - Western governments may find themselves faced with a severe political challenge. The risk is that popular protests and demonstrations will begin to mount again, perhaps reaching the level of social disruption.
It is not a matter of ''caving in to the Russians'' but of vigorously negotiating a compromise. Moscow will not accept the zero option, which would force it to dismantle all its existing missiles while leaving the British and French forces in place. But it does seem to want to strike a deal. Arms control experts can quickly puncture Mr. Andropov's main offer: For example, the present British and French missiles carry one warhead while the SS-20 carries three. There remains concern about the SS-20s which are targeted on China and could be moved westward. Other aspects of the Soviet proposal also raise problems.
Yet Mr. Andropov has offered a reduction of Soviet medium-range missiles pointed at Western Europe - an offer that on the face of it seems better than the present imbalance. Why not see what can be won behind closed doors - and forestall both a dangerous and costly arms escalation and the prospect of political instability?