There is growing belief in Europe that negotiators for the United States and the Soviet Union on intermediate-range nuclear missiles will not reach an agreement in time to stop a deployment of American missiles and personnel. Indeed, it has already quietly begun.
For months US and West European officials have publicly nurtured the hope that negotiations in Geneva would reach a decisive and successful stage later this year as the first deployment of US cruise and Pershing II missiles drew nearer.
But many now foresee the possibility that these controversial talks will not be concluded in time. In fact, some now believe both Moscow and Washington might see more gain in not yielding and letting deployment proceed.
Meanwhile, the vanguard of American equipment and an estimated 20,000 people associated with the deployment have arrived in some of the five NATO countries involved. In addition, construction and other preparation of sites has been under way for some time. Forty-one of the total 572 missiles are to be deployed this year.
Greatest advancement has reportedly taken place in Greenham Common, 50 miles west of London, where a force of women protesters is keeping a vigil, and in Comiso, Italy.
At Greenham Common, construction is said to be well advanced, with several bunkers built. The first components for cruise-missile transport vehicles were to have started arriving in May by airlift from the US. The first of an initial flight crew, 69 US Air Force personnel, were to arrive in early June. Construction has not yet begun at another prospective site at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, England.
A fence around the Comiso base in Sicily has been completed, and $55 million in contracts has been awarded for the base, including administrative and living facilities there. Although no cruise-missile components have arrived, the first 200 American personnel arrived in April.
No construction was reported for possible cruise bases in Bitburg, West Germany, and De Peel, the Netherlands - other reported cruise sites. Conversion of roads, communication, and other facilities at the Florennes Air Base in Belgium has begun.
All 102 Pershing II missiles are to be deployed at existing Pershing I bases in West Germany. Some work has been reported at bases in Schwabisch-Gmund, Neu-Ulm, and Heilbronn. Nine Pershing IIs are scheduled to be deployed this year , along with 16 cruise missiles in Britain and a similar number in Italy, unless negotiators in Geneva come up with a last-minute accord.
Public demonstrations at some of the deployment sites have begun and are expected to be stepped up as the tempo of deployment accelerates, putting increasing pressure on the Geneva negotiations.
Both the US and West European governments have long expressed the belief that the Soviet Union would not begin to negotiate seriously on the reduction or elimination of this new generation of missiles until the arrival date for the first missiles drew near. This is why they are determined to proceed with deployment and have been heartened by this year's election victories for pro-deployment forces in West Germany and Britain.
Some officials think the Soviet Union might see more advantage in refusing the US and allied terms for either a total elimination of American and Soviet missiles or a so-called ''interim solution'' of a limited deployment.
According to this reasoning, Soviet planners may feel the continuing political and public protest that is expected to accompany the deployment would result in serious strains within the Western alliance. Such upheaval would serve the Kremlin's aims more than an agreement.
One activist believes this could reach ''civil war'' proportions. ''If I were in the Soviet shoes, I wouldn't budge,'' noted a Western expert who follows the negotiations.
Others believe that as the US presidential campaign progresses, President Reagan may feel more pressure at home, as well as abroad, to make concessions at the Geneva talks.
The Soviet Union may also stall or suspend the intermediate-range missile talks in order to consolidate all such negotiations into the strategic arms reduction talks (START), also going on in Geneva, observers say. This is a move that many diplomats and observers have foreseen as more logical than continuing with the rigid and complicated separation of these missile talks.