The curious case of the latest Soviet arms control offer - made informally in Geneva, then denied loudly in Moscow - suggests the Kremlin may itself be in some disarray over how to respond to NATO's new missile deployments.
Many Western analysts had expected a last-minute move by the Soviets to try to prevent the NATO deployment. They had suggested Moscow might come up with some apparent concessions at the arms talks in Geneva.
But, when it came, the Soviet two-step - one forward, one backward - caused more perplexity than clarity and cast further doubts on who is calling the shots in the Kremlin.
With Soviet leader Yuri Andropov absent, apparently ill, Western diplomats are wondering whether others are directing Moscow's moves at the negotiations in his stead. Some analysts argue that while some Kremlin civilian officials might want to be flexible at Geneva, others - notably Soviet military hard-liners - are resisting such moves.
Some observers say the world is probably seeing the outward signs of an internal struggle between would-be successors to Andropov, who has not been seen by Westerners for three months.
First word of the new Soviet arms control offer in Geneva came from West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Late last week he said the Soviet chief negotiator at the Euromissile talks in Geneva had hinted that Moscow might drop its demand that British and French nuclear deterrents be included in the negotiations.
This appeared at first sight to be a Soviet concession, even though it was part of a proposal that called for zero NATO deployment in return for a halving rather than elimination of Moscow's SS-20 missiles targeted on West Europe.
Since negotiations over intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe began in Geneva two years ago, the Soviets have insisted that the nuclear forces of Britain and France should be included in the total of NATO missiles in Europe. American negotiators have refused, arguing the British and French arsenals are independent and not subject to NATO's control. This has been a major sticking point in the negotiations.
In Washington, White House spokesman Larry Speakes confirmed the Soviet offer but termed it ''unfair.''
The reason? It would still, according to the White House, be conditional on the US deploying no new missiles in Europe. That, according to the Reagan administration, would preserve the USSR's monopoly on medium-range missiles on the continent. The Soviets currently have 243 triple-warhead SS-20 missiles aimed at Europe and 117 in the Soviet Far East.
But late Friday, the Kremlin denied any change in its negotiating stance. The Soviet news agency Tass distributed a preview of a statement by Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov in Saturday's Communist Party daily, Pravda. In it, he repeated demands that French and British missiles be taken into account.
The official Soviet news agency Tass denied the Soviets had given any ''signals'' of flexibility in Geneva. There were ''no such signals,'' Tass said, and there ''are not to be.''
Some Western analysts read this as the Kremlin disowning the stance taken by its Geneva negotiator, Yuli Kvitsinsky. That reminded them of the 1982 ''walk in the woods.'' During that walk, US and Soviet chief negotiators apparently worked out a potential compromise on missile deploy-ments, involving reductions by both sides. The offer was quickly disavowed by Moscow, then in effect by Washington.
The apparently conflicting signals from the Kremlin are mirrored, in some measure, in the East bloc as a whole. The Soviets have vowed to retaliate for the new missiles by new Soviet deployments in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovak Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal warned West Germany of ''unforeseeable consequences'' arising from the deployment. Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, an East-bloc maverick, says both superpowers are ''defying mankind'' with new deployments and counterdeployments.
Last week, a Soviet official, asked to respond to Ceausescu, replied tersely, ''No comment.''
A Soviet official says the USSR is reviewing its own nuclear weapons policy. The debate is much quieter and largely held behind-the-scenes, he says. Some indicator of how it is going may come this week, since the Soviets have threatened to walk out of the negotiations in Geneva once they become ''pointless.''
That has widely been interpreted to mean when the West German Bundestag this week reaffirms, as expected, the government's decision to deploy the missiles.
Still, there are some hints that the Soviets may stay on even longer in Geneva, until the NATO missiles are actually operational - sometime in December.
And both Western diplomats and Soviet sources indicate that a walkout will probably not be permanent.
The Soviets could return at some later date, or could offer to include the European-range missiles in the strategic arms reduction talks (START), which are also under way in Geneva.
In Washington, meanwhile, Congress has passed a record $249.8 billion defense bill, clearing the way for continued buildup of both US conventional and nuclear military power.
At the same time, the US Central Intelligence Agency, in something of an about-face, lowered its estimate of the annual growth of Soviet military spending growth.
Since 1976, the CIA reports, Soviet military spending has grown by only about 2 percent a year - half the rate of earlier CIA estimates. Still, the CIA study warns, the Soviets spend more for defense than the US ''by a large margin.''