As the clock winds down toward planned deployment of new NATO nuclear missiles in Europe about six weeks from now, both East and West are jockeying for position on the substance and image of arms control.
NATO defense ministers are meeting in Ottawa this week to discuss nuclear strategy. They are expected to announce that their arsenal of battlefield (short-range) nuclear weapons will be reduced by 1,500 or more. This has been planned for some time, but is being publicized now as an indicator of Western earnestness about reducing nuclear arms in Europe. It contrasts pointedly with the movement of new Soviet tactical missiles into Warsaw Pact countries.
Meanwhile, Soviet President Yuri Andropov this week further clarified Moscow's position on Euromissiles in a move designed to demonstrate more flexibility there.
However, most observers say that the impact of all this last-minute posturing on intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) talks in Geneva is likely to be minimal. Despite European qualms about the US invasion of Grenada, alliance leaders will stand together on the initial deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in December. And despite increased huffing and puffing in Moscow and a likely hiatus in the INF talks, arms control efforts will not collapse completely, it is felt here.
Mr. Andropov's latest proposal is to reduce his modern, three-warhead SS-20 missiles targeted on Europe from 243 to 140, less than the 162 British and French missiles now in place. The Soviet leader also said current SS-20 deployments in Asia would be frozen as long as the nuclear threat from the West in that region does not increase.
The allies reject any balancing of Soviet missiles with the older (mostly submarine-based) missiles controlled by London and Paris. They see this as a ploy to prevent any modernization of NATO's theater nuclear capability.
A State Department official said the Andropov point about Asian missiles ''looks positive,'' but called the offer on European-based missiles ''window dressing . . . strictly a public-relations gesture.''
At the same time, US officials acknowledge that they cannot be too harsh in their reaction to any Soviet gesture, particularly as antinuclear protest movements grow in Europe and America.
''We have to temper our substantive evaluation somewhat with the consideration of how this sounds to the public,'' said one arms control insider.
If anything, the latest developments on medium-range missiles point up the difficulty of keeping INF talks separate from the parallel strategic arms reduction talks. And they highlight the very difficult and main point of impasse: continued exclusion of British and French nuclear forces from discussions at Geneva.
What worries Moscow about Britain and France, US officials acknowledge, is not so much existing forces but the planned modernization that would increase eight-fold the number of targetable warheads held by these countries.
More immediately, the Soviet Union fears the 108 highly accurate (within 30 meters), very fast (10 minutes' flight time to the USSR) US-made Pershing II missiles scheduled to be based in West Germany over the next several years.
Critics view these much as they do this country's new MX intercontinental ballistic missile: They say the MX is a possible first-strike weapon that will be vulnerable and thus increase the likelihood of an early nuclear exchange in any military confrontation between the superpowers. But the Reagan administration received a boost this week when an effort to delete funds for more Pershing II's was defeated in the House of Representatives. The House next week will consider a move to postpone NATO missile deployment until next summer.
In his interview in Moscow with the official Communist Party daily Pravda, Andropov said the Soviet Union will walk out of the INF talks if the Pershing II and cruise missiles are deployed in December. US officials are unsure exactly what will follow from this threat. But as one said, ''What Andropov says has to be taken seriously.''