Round 1 of the two superpowers' public exchanges on nuclear arms control is a standoff. Both Moscow and Washington have stuck to their opening, conflicting positions - essentially playing to the public (especially West European) galleries.
But behind the public skirmishing, the real arms control negotiations in Geneva are alive and well.
Indeed, the two teams in the intermediate range nuclear arms control talks (INF) have gotten down to the substance of the bargaining remarkably fast, without procedural or data wrangles. Although the negotiations are barely two months old (discounting the Christmas recess), complete arms control proposals have already been exchanged.
This has been achieved despite the East-West confrontation over Polish repression, and despite the Poland-triggered postponement in setting a date for opening the longer range strategic arms reduction talks (START, nee strategic arms limitation talks or SALT).
It also makes clear that the American hawks who wanted to drop all talks with the Russians after Polish martial law was declared have not prevailed in the Reagan administration.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has made blistering indictments of the Polish repression. He has warned that it casts a dark shadow over arms control negotiations. But he has not retreated from his observation of last December that nuclear arms control falls in an urgent, special category of contacts that should not be broken off, at least at the present stage of events in Poland.
This reasoning also extends tacitly to the START talks that were tentatively scheduled to begin in late March or early April. Because of Poland, Mr. Haig refused to set a date for their opening at his Jan. 27 meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. But indications are that the original timetable might still be kept.
Haig has emphasized that preparations for START are continuing. And reports from Washington say that the bureaucracy there is intensively vetting three alternatives before making the final choice of the initial American position on strategic limitations.
Meanwhile, Western intelligence figures show a continuing and more rapid buildup in the Soviet Union's mobile, 5,000-km range, SS-20 missiles over the past year than had been projected earlier. According to well-informed sources, US estimates for mid-February show 32 deployment centers as completed, with five more centers apparently planned in the entire SS-20 program. Each center contains nine launchers.
This means that Western intelligence now counts 88 more SS-20 launchers than a year ago, for a deployment rate of one every four days. The previous Western estimate had been one new deployment every five days.
With three warheads per missile the total number of warheads on the 288 deployed SS-20 missiles is now 864. The rule of thumb calculation that two-thirds of these are targeted on Western Europe thus yields a European figure of 576.
Together with the 300 remaining older Soviet SS-4s and SS-5s, this adds up to 876 Soviet missile warheads currently targeted on Western Europe. By comparison the NATO allies currently have only 162 British and French (and no American intermediate range) missile warheads targeted on the Soviet Union.
NATO plans for mid-1980s deployment would add 572 American NATO missile warheads to this number. But this would still keep NATO below Warsaw Pact figures at 734 to 876, even if the Soviet Union retires its SS-4 and SS-5 warheads (as it has not done so far) at the same rate that it deploys new SS-20 s.
In this context the current state of play in the ongoing European nuclear arms control talks in Geneva shows these main differences between the American and Soviet sides:
1. Data base:
The two sides are fairly close in their counts of Soviet missiles targeted on Western Europe and NATO missiles targeted on the Warsaw Pact. There is an abyss, however, between the two sides in their count of nuclear aircraft.
The Soviet Union claims a rough total equality of a thousand intermediate range nuclear missiles and aircraft on both sides in the European theater. The West, by contrast, claims an 876:162 superiority in Soviet missile warheads over NATO; or a 2,956 to 931 Soviet superiority in the total equivalent aircraft and missile warheads.
2. Missiles-only vs. missiles-and-aircraft:
The Soviet Union insists that the Geneva talks should limit aircraft as well as missiles.
The West wants to focus instead on limiting the most lethal weapons (in terms of penetration, speed, and accuracy) and also the most negotiable weapons. This means missiles.
Given goodwill, the US calculates that a missile agreement could be reached in the 11/2 years before the orders for final preparations for the new NATO deployments have to be given. It would seem impossible to reach agreement in that short time on the much more complex issue of aircraft, however, given the much wider gap in the Soviet and Western data base, and the inherent ambiguity of aircraft (in speed of switching between conventional and nuclear roles, speed of relocation, etc.).
3. Zero-missiles solution vs. some-systems solution.
The US is proposing a zero-missiles solution: no new NATO deployments of missiles in return for dismantling of the already emplaced Soviet missiles that the new NATO systems are designed to counter. This ''zero option'' proposal is the focus of Washington's public stand. It has been presented in Geneva as a draft treaty and rejected by the Kremlin.
The Soviet Union, by contrast, is proposing a some-systems solution: equal reductions by both sides of existing missile and aircraft systems. This is the focus of Moscow's public stand. President Leonid Brezhnev has dangled before West Europeans the idea of a two-thirds reduction of European nuclear missiles by 1990 by both East and West. This is rejected by Washington.
4. Global vs. European theater.
The American position is that limits on Soviet missiles threatening Europe must be ''global'' - that is, cover the third of SS-20s currently targeted on China as well as the third currently targeted on Europe and the third in the Urals that can be swing-targeted either way. The US bases this stance on the ease with which the SS-20 can be transported from one region to another and retargeted.
Moscow's position is that Soviet weapons targeted on China must be excluded from any NATO-Warsaw Pact balance. Just before the Geneva talks opened Nov. 30 Moscow tacitly agreed to the inclusion of its Urals-based SS-20s in the negotiations by modifying its official data. In something of a reversion, however, the language of the formal Soviet proposal in the Geneva negotiations does not specifically include these swing-target, Urals-based SS-20s.
In addition, the Soviet Union is insisting that planes based not in Europe but in the US - the F-111s - be included in the balance.
5. US-vs.-Soviet vs. NATO-vs.-Warsaw Pact.
The Soviet Union wants to include French and British as well as American nuclear systems in calculating the NATO side of a European nuclear arms control balance. At the same time it wants to exclude Warsaw Pact systems of under a thousand kilometer range stationed in East Germany that could threaten vital NATO targets in West Germany as effectively as the SS-20.
The US, on the other hand, wants to exclude the independent French and British systems and count only American and Soviet systems against each other. And it wants to include those shorter-range Soviet missiles in East Germany in any arms control agreement - or at least make sure that they don't circumvent any agreement.
In the forthcoming START talks the current state of play is much less clearly defined. According to the Boston Globe, however, computer simulations are currently being run in Washington to aid in selection of one of three opening positions.
The first is said to be a shift from the SALT I and SALT II restraints on launchers to equal restraints on warheads. There would also be sub-limits on land-based intercontinental missiles that could be as low as 50 percent.
The second would, according to the Globe, limit aggregate throw-weights to an equality on both sides. Of the three alternatives this would be the most disadvantageous to the Soviet Union, since Moscow currently enjoys something like a five to one superiority over the US in throw-weight. This gap resulted from the deliberate American decision in the 1970s that weight meant nothing after a certain optimal size - and the contrary Soviet decision in the 1970s to use sheer bulk to compensate for its inferior numbers of warheads.
The third possible American position, according to the Globe, would look more like SALT II in limiting launchers rather than warheads. It would, however, entail even deeper cuts - some 30 percent - than President Carter's ''deep cut'' proposal of 1977.
Actually, all three alternatives would involve major reductions of existing weapons, as the Reagan administration has made clear from the moment it began talking of resuming strategic arms control negotiations. At present the US has some 9,000 strategic warheads and the Soviet Union some 7,000. It is expected that both sides will have more than 10,000 by the mid-1980s.