Still time to agree

Soviet leader Andropov has kept the superpower thunder rolling back and forth between the two world capitals, in rejecting President Reagan's new proposals for limiting mid-range missiles in Europe.

Has the war of words, the public verbal wrestling to pin the other side down in the world of public opinion - particularly opinion in Western Europe where US missiles are soon to be implanted - begun to make meaningful concessions in the private Geneva talks impossible? Not yet. But the danger is there.

Mr. Andropov was clearly stung by the Reagan public offensive after the KAL Flight 7 incident. He accused Reagan of ''playing for time'' to start deployment in Western Europe of Pershing II ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles, and of ''ambitious militarist plans.'' He got out the Soviet peace cello: ''The release of the resources now being recklessly wasted on the arms race and the unfolding of the inexhaustible creative potentialities of man are the things that might unite people,'' Andropov said. What was unusual was not so much the propaganda thrumming as Andropov's personally going toe-to-toe with adversary Reagan.

Realism, say some Reagan arms analysts, lies on the side of an arms deal being off for the rest of this year, until the Soviets gauge the depth of response to the Pershing deployment in Europe. The Italians, under Craxi as prime minister, have gotten as edgy as the West Germans. Andropov's remarks were intended for West European ears. But any Soviet assumption that European public opinion might deny the US its deployment but not the Soviets theirs must be proved wrong.

Likewise, a Soviet assumption that they have anything to gain by waiting out a Reagan reelection decision this fall would be dubious for their arms talk timing. The general rule that a conservative US president has greater room to maneuver with communist regimes still applies. Even more to the point, the basic NATO two-track decision, to deploy in Europe to offset Soviet SS 20s and guarantee talks, came under the Carter administration at then West German Chancellor Schmidt's suggestion. The successor conservative governments in both countries have inherited it. It has bipartisan status. It would be politically unwise for a US Democratic candidate to move away from the operative Western position.

It's premature to rule out some kind of arms agreement this fall. It's still possible to limit deployment and agree on some kind of schedule in the talks. Andropov did not respond in detail to the Reagan UN proposals Monday. It's not clear whether the Soviet President's offer of August 26 to reduce Soviet missiles will hold up, or whether he will offer an even lower count of SS 20s.

There's still quite a lot of bargaining going on in the private Geneva sessions. The Geneva talks have themselves been remarkably protected from leaks, unlike Salt II. The public positioning of the two sides has been going on in a way quite separate from the actual negotiations. Reagan's latest proposals had been worked on all summer. Again, the question is whether the posturing has been limiting policy options.

Vice President Bush's remark that British and French nuclear weapons will ultimately have to be considered in an arms pact adds another fascinating element. The French and British themselves this week vowed again to keep their missiles independent of the US-Soviet bargaining. The Soviet offer to limit their SS 20s to the French/British missile total has been rejected by the US as well. The US argues the Soviets' demand would block any US deployment altogether , which would mean no nuclear screen to put over the West Germans. The Bush remark might reflect the policy divisions within the administration, or a US feeler to prepare for a broader arms talk framework that would include the British and French missiles in overall calculations.

In the broad arc of the two-year talks, both sides have given ground. The Soviets first had refused even to negotiate for six months after the December 1979 two-track NATO decision. They said in December of last year they would reduce their European arsenal to British and French levels. Last May they said they would count warheads and not missiles. And in August they offered to destroy missiles and not send them to Asia. Reagan similarly has made concessions - including three this week on embracing aircraft in missile talks, a more global framework, and possible reduction in Pershing II numbers.

The Soviets do not want to keep up their pressure on the Germans, given the history of the two peoples, forever. Eventually it is in the Soviet interest to ease off.

But it looks increasingly as if NATO's resolve will be tested in the Pershing deployment this December. The logic of building arsenals to reduce arsenals will likewise be tested. But if reason still is superior to unreason, this testing of wills can still lead to an agreement. Otherwise a higher point of escalation will be reached, from which both sides would find the descent even harder.

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