The latest round of Euromissile talks in Geneva, senior Soviet officials are suggesting privately, could constitute a make-or-break test for the possibility of compromise.
The argument, conveyed in interviews here before the talks reopened May 17, goes roughly like this:
NATO plans to start deploying new US missiles in Western Europe at the end of the year. A compromise in Geneva cannot be a last-minute affair, in that Moscow will resist even the appearance of having come to terms under pressure of the West's deployment plans.
Western diplomats counter that the Soviets' reasoning is at least partly self-serving. The Kremlin has been intensifying efforts to shift pressure for concessions - now on Moscow, with the new missile deployment drawing near - back to the West.
Still, Western envoys tend to agree that any compromise accord consistent with Soviet hopes to head off the new NATO deployment would probably have to get started in the current round of talks.
Superficially, prospects for accord seem to have improved slightly in the past few weeks. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov proposed for the first time a negotiated limit on European nuclear warheads - not just launching vehicles.
Reports from Washington indicate the Americans are rejoining the Geneva talks with a proposal taking precisely that tack: seeking a warhead ceiling.
But both sides, in different words, make it clear that major sticking points remain. The most major of all is precisely what missiles and other weapons should be counted in Geneva.
The Soviets say their SS-20 missiles targeted on Europe should be balanced against British and French rockets, in that these weapons are clearly aimed at the Soviet Union. Both the British and French plan an increase in missile warheads that, under current Soviet negotiating proposals, would suggest an actual increase in the Soviet SS-20 force.
Moscow also wants the talks to include nuclear-capable aircraft, specifically US planes based on carriers in the European region. The US says the talks should cover only land-based European missiles.
Furthermore, since the British and French forces are independent of NATO control, are not meant for defense of other European states, and are almost all submarine based, the US excludes them from the balance in Geneva.
Since NATO has no land-based missiles equivalent to the Soviet force, the US position is that the Soviets must reduce their force or face appropriate deployment of the new NATO rockets starting late this year.
A further remaining dispute is just what would be done with Soviet missiles covered by an eventual reduction agreement.
The United States and its NATO allies insist on destruction or dismantling of Soviet rockets, especially since the SS-20, the mainstay of the Kremlin's European missile force, is easily mobile.
Moscow counters that it should be allowed merely to shift the SS-20s to the Asian part of the Soviet Union, to balance US or allied threats from that direction.
In a recent interview with a Hungarian journalist, a ranking Soviet official confirmed that his country was building new SS-20 sites in Asia.
Against this general background, another senior official told the Monitor May 16 he ''can't really see'' how the current US position can yield a workable compromise in Geneva.
''I don't want to write off possibilities for agreement even as this new round begins. . . . We hope for progress,'' he said, adding that Moscow was ready to meet the Americans ''more than halfway'' toward that end.
''But let them not expect a last-minute softening from us. I think we will become tougher, not softer, near the end of the year.''