Soviet leader Yuri Andropov has made the first potentially significant move by either the United States or the Soviet Union since bilateral negotiations began a year ago in Geneva to reduce intermediate-range nuclear weapons. In a speech on Dec. 21, Andropov said that the Soviet Union would reduce its intermediate-range missile force in Europe to the British and French level if the US would cancel the deployment of the Pershing II missile and ground-launched cruise missile in Western Europe.
The proposed Soviet reductions would be substantial - about 260 old SS-4 and SS-5 missiles and about 90 multiple-warhead SS-20 missiles. The Soviets would retain a sizable land-based force - 262 SS-20s, 100 of which would be targeted on Asia and 162 on Western Europe, equal to British and French nuclear missile deployments.
The Western reaction - British, French, and American - to the Andropov proposal was swift and negative. Britain and France do not want their forces to be involved in the negotiations. American spokesmen asserted that the proposed Soviet reductions would still leave the United States at a disadvantage - 262 missiles for the Soviet Union and none for the United States.
Yet the Soviet proposal could in fact provide a way to bring about a substantial reduction in the Soviet nuclear threat to Western Europe and President Reagan would have achieved one of his major goals.
As it stands, the Andropov proposal contains serious shortcomings and ambiguities.
The Soviet intermediate-range missile level would be reduced to that of the British and French - 162 missiles. But the remaining Soviet missile, the SS-20, carries three warheads while the British and French missiles carry only one. Thus, by the most telling measure of nuclear capability, the Soviet force would be three times as powerful as the Western force.
Andropov said the Soviets would ''retain in Europe'' only as many missiles as are kept there by the British and French. Is he counting only weapons literally ''in Europe'' or is he also counting weapons targeted on Western Europe but located East of the Urals? And what happens to the reduced missiles? Are they dismantled, or are they simply transferred to other locations where they would still be a potential threat to Western Europe?
Andropov said nothing about Soviet SS-20 missiles targeted on Asia. Would the Soviets agree that these missiles could not be redeployed against Western Europe , and that their numbers should not be increased?
Andropov conditions Soviet missile reductions on an accord ''reducing to equal levels on both sides the number of medium-range nuclear delivery aircraft stationed in this region by the USSR and the NATO countries.'' But this condition adds to the negotiations a time-consuming element of considerable complexity because there are wide differences between Soviet and American data about the number and capability of aircraft.
A reduction plan which does not have these shortcomings and which, like the Andropov proposal, calls for substantial Soviet missile reductions but no reductions of deployed Western missiles was devised a few months ago by the American Committee for National Security. This plan has since been endorsed by leaders of the British Labour Party and the West German Social Democratic Party - opposition parties whose support would go far to ensure a united Western position.
Soviet forces would not be equated with British and French forces, as Andropov proposes. American forces - the American commitment to Western Europe - are also involved. But the United States would forgo the deployment of the Pershing II missile and the ground-launched cruise missile if the Soviets dismantled missiles targeted on Western Europe carrying an equivalent number of warheads - about 260 SS-4s and SS-5s and about 100 SS-20s.
The resulting ceiling would take into account all intermediate-range missiles regardless of nationality and whether launched from the land or sea. The 40 American Poseidon missiles and their 400 warheads assigned to the NATO Commander would be included since they are an integral part of the deterrent in Europe. These 40 missiles with a range comparable to the Soviet SS-20 would be excluded from the SALT/START count of strategic weapons, thus permitting an increase of 40 in the overall total of American submarine-based missiles.
British and French forces would also be taken into account in the ceiling. They would be counted because Britain and France are allies, because an armed attack on one would be regarded as an attack on all, and because the issues are central to their security - even their survival. But to meet their wishes, their forces would not be limited and they would retain full freedom of action.
If this missile reduction and limitation plan were agreed and put into effect , the West would have 202 mostly sea-based missiles and 562 warheads and the Soviets would have 160 land-based missiles carrying 480 warheads facing Western Europe (the Soviets would retain 100 missiles and 300 warheads targeted on Asia).
The Western intermediate missile force would offset the Soviet intermediate force and it would be invulnerable. The American role in deterrence in Europe would be reaffirmed. The Pershing II missile and the ground-launched cruise missile would not be needed. The US would have avoided the heavy political costs of deploying more nuclear weapons in Western Europe. And the US would have avoided adding priority targets in overcrowded Western Europe.
Soviet concern about US aircraft could be met through a freeze on the most threatening aircraft of both countries, the American F-111 and FB-111 and the Soviet Backfire bomber, and through a noncircumvention clause covering dual capable aircraft. These limitations would not require full agreement about data on aircraft.
Only a year remains before the US is scheduled to deploy the Pershing II missile and the ground-launched cruise missile. Once deployment begins, American negotiating options will narrow. The possibility of an early agreement at Geneva with substantial reductions in Soviet theater nuclear weapons will be foreclosed. The US and its Western allies must seek to avoid this outcome by acting decisively now to take advantage of the Andropov proposal.