Men in dark suits at Geneva; shrouded nuclear missiles in Britain; threats followed by silence from the Kremlin. These are some of the elements in the latest chapter of the political struggle that is straining relations between the United States, its West European allies, and the Soviet Union.
The struggle is over missiles like those now shrouded with tarpaulins at the Greenham Common Air Force Base, north of London. They were unloaded Monday - the first of a new generation of US missiles to be stationed in West Europe and targeted at the Soviet Union.
A total of 572 cruise and Pershing II missiles will eventually be deployed to counter some 360 Soviet triple-warhead SS-20 missiles (two-thirds targeted on Europe) - unless the dark-suited diplomats in Geneva can yet prevent it.
On the same day that the cruise missiles arrived in Britain, the Americans made a last-ditch negotiating effort, perhaps aimed as much at the European peace movement as at Moscow. They proposed that both sides cap the number of intermediate-range missiles at 140, with a maximum of 420 warheads.
The next day, Tuesday, the Soviets rejected the proposal out-of-hand, opposing any new American missiles in Europe. The Geneva session ended in only 35 minutes. A new session was scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 17. But West Europeans, along with Americans, were left wondering whether the Soviets would make good on threats to end the negotiations.
(US officials say that in its latest offer Washington used the Soviets' own earlier proposal for a cap of 140 missiles or 420 warheads. The intention, they say, was to show flexibility and reasonableness.
(''We've taken that number and turned it around,'' said one State Department source.
(However, US officials say they still have several problems with the Soviets' original 140-missiles-a-side offer. Not only does Moscow insist on including the non-NATO nuclear deterrents of Britain and France, but it also is described as ''very ambiguous'' about its own proposed freeze on similar missiles in the eastern Soviet Union.
(''There are big loopholes in that,'' said one US official.)
Assessing any Soviet Geneva walkout, experts pore over the comments of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in an earlier interview with Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper.
''The appearance of new US missiles in Western Europe will make it impossible to continue the talks now held in Geneva.''
What does ''appearance'' mean? Do missiles under tarpaulins at Greenham Common equal an ''appearance''?
Yuli Kvitsinsky, the Kremlin's chief negotiator in the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) talks in Geneva, has said the breakoff will come when the missiles are actually deployed - which is scheduled for next month.
Protests continue to well up in Europe. Should Britain have a second ''key'' to give it firm control over any firing of the cruise missiles? Parliament argues the matter. Opinion polls show overwhelming public support for such a ''twin key.''
British Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine told Parliament Monday that cruise missiles had arrived on British soil. Some members of Parliament broke into cheers. Others were bitter, and laughed openly when Heseltine said there was still time to reach an agreement in Geneva before the missiles were made ready for firing. In that moment, the British Parliament reflected a divided West Europe.
How much political heat can West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl take on the issue? He's solidly supporting NATO's plans for the new missiles, despite public opinion polls running the other way.
All of the 108 fast and powerful Pershing II missiles are intended for deployment in West Germany. A final debate over the stationing of the Pershing IIs takes place in the West German Bundestag (parliament) Nov. 21. The Soviets may be timing an all-out effort to halt the deployment to coincide with the debate. They could keep the negotiations in Geneva going until then - thus bringing added pressure to bear on the Kohl government. The debate could take place with full knowledge that the Geneva negotiations hinge on the outcome in the Bundestag.
What is the Kremlin doing in the meantime? Andropov hasn't been seen by foreign reporters for nearly three months. How is his health? Is he directing the antimissile campaign?
Western experts don't think so. A ''collective leadership group'' is acting in his stead, they argue.
A NATO official tells Reuters, ''Because of Andropov's illness, the Soviet leadership doesn't appear to have made up its mind how to handle Western deployment.'' But, a high-level Soviet source says, don't be surprised if a walkout occurs soon.
''It would not be something unexpected,'' he says, pointing to two documents. One is the interview by Mr. Andropov. Another is a recent speech by Grigory Romanov, a member of the powerful Politburo.
In his speech, Romanov says, ''The emergence of the new American missiles in Western Europe will make it impossible to continue the Soviet-American talks that are under way in Geneva now.''