Military men may now be in the driver's seat in the Soviet Union - at least for the time being. That's what Western diplomats are reading into the Kremlin's hard-line response to NATO's stationing of new nuclear missiles in Western Europe.
That response was issued last week in the name of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. But Western analysts say the paper it was written on probably bears the watermark of the Red Army.
From a military standpoint, they say, the tough line emanating from the Kremlin makes little practical difference. If the Soviets go ahead with their threatened counterdeployments, this will have little if any impact on the actual balance of nuclear forces.
But they are concerned that disarray in the leadership of the Kremlin will make for continued uncertainty in relations between the US and the USSR.
Andropov has not been seen by Westerners for more than three months. Some Kremlin-watchers say he is seriously incapacitated, and the Soviet hierarchy is divided on what steps to take in his absence. Meanwhile, these analysts assert, the military has the upper hand - at least for the moment.
They point to the prominent role played recently by Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov as well as to the generally bellicose tone of the Kremlin's published response to the NATO deployments. In it, the Soviets:
* Said further participation in talks on limiting medium-range nuclear weaponry in Europe would be ''impossible'' - unless the United States removed new missiles it has just sent to its European allies in NATO.
* Announced they had ''abrogated'' a unilateral moratorium on deployment of new SS-20 missiles in the European part of the Soviet Union. There are now an estimated 243 SS-20 missiles targeted on West Europe.
* Said new deployments of missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia would be ''accelerated.''
* Warned that Soviet missiles will be deployed in ''ocean areas and seas'' in order to threaten the United States. This has been widely interpreted to mean stepped-up Soviet patrols off the US - probably by submarines carrying ballistic or cruise missiles.
Western analysts say the latter move ''doesn't change anything strategically.'' Why not? Because, they say, the Soviets would never begin a nuclear exchange using short-range missiles on ships off the US coast. That would invite immediate retaliation from US intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Such a course would be ''suicidal'' says one Western diplomat, adding that ''they have had ballistic (missiles on) submarines off our coast for quite some time.''
The tough tone of the Kremlin statement - relying heavily on threats to deploy more missiles - is seen by such analysts as an indicator that the military is exerting a strong influence in the Kremlin. While this is especially true in Andropov's absence, they say, it is unlikely to change much should Andropov reclaim his seat at the head of the ruling Politburo. In their view, Andropov simply depends on the military too much for his own political power base - and is unlikely to risk the military's displeasure if his own grip on power is tenuous.
Still, these analysts suggest that the military is realistic enough not to be too confrontational. ''When they see an interest in dealing with us, they will deal with us,'' says a Western diplomat.
If military influence is on the rise here, it has implications for internal policy, too. Some analysts say the military will checkmate major economic or political reforms because it does not want to risk money being diverted away from the armed forces.