SKIRMISHES BETWEEN the United States and its NATO partners over the Siberian natural gas pipeline are more than a family spat. What we are watching now is an important early round in a confrontation that could be the crucial diplomatic event of the 1980s -- a U.S.-Soviet battle for the hearts and minds of Europe.

What distinguishes this round of feuding within the Atlantic alliance from earlier, similar episodes is the active participation of a non-member of NATO, the Soviet Union. The Soviets perceive the pipeline issue as an important opportunity to score against the United States in Europe.

From the Politburo's standpoint, "the pipeline war" offers a welcome opening to move Western Europe farther away from the United States and in the direction of unilateral accommodation with the Soviet Union. No other goal appears to stand higher on Moscow's foreign policy agenda than widening the gaps within NATO. And the Soviets believe that they have a good chance to succeed because, as Literaturnaya Gazeta's political commentator Vladimir Lomeyko puts it: "A psychological incompatibility is to a certain extent developing between the West European allies and the hard right-wing group in the United States."

The belief that Ronald Reagan's stubborn pursuit of anti-Soviet sanctions may be a blessing in disguise for Mosocow is shared by a growing number of the Kremlin's foreign policy advisers. According to Vadim Zagladin, first deputy chief of the Central Committee's key international department, the Reagan administration's European policy is "not very farsighted." He argues with satisfaction that it hurts America's own interests and "will have far-reaching consequences" detrimental to the United States' influence in Western Europe. Zagladin and his colleagues quite openly admit that this is exactly what they would like to see.

Moscow is realistic enough not to expect a breakup of NATO in the foreseeable future. "Of course, it would be a mistake to think that it is virtually a question of the collapse of the 'Western Alliance' as the sensationalist bourgeois press writes in the heat of the moment," Pravda has cautioned its readers. Both Marxist class analysis of international developments and sophisticated assessments of political realities on both sides of the Atlantic suggest to Russian analysts that the powerful bonds tying the major capitalist nations together will prevent "a divorce," no matter what clashes may take place among individual leaders.

So Moscow assumes that NATO will remain a "family." The real issue is, what kind of family? Will the alliance remain a formidable unified adversary able to deal in concert with the Soviet Union? Or will it be reduced to a loose coalition of "quarreling" members with the United States in splendid isolation, assuming a confrontational posture, while the nations of western Europe -- disillusioned and frustrated by Washington's inflexibility -- try to outdo each other in building bridges to the U.S.S.R.?

Soviet policymakers hope that the NATO family will at least become less willing to follow U.S. leadership, not just on the pipeline, but also on strategy toward the U.S.S.R. in general.

"The more dangerously, the more unceremoniously Washington acts, the more often it beats its head against the wall of reality," Pravda says, predicting that "the omnipotence of Uncle Sam is a mirage and mirages disappear sooner or later." Numerous Soviet officials, including Leonid Brezhnev, have appealed to the pride of the West Europeans, suggesting the U.S. "dictat" should not be allowed to lock the allies into an unnecesary and counterproductive confrontation with the U.S.S.R.

Two European issues are paramount for the Soviets: the NATO decision to modernize its intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe and construction of the pipeline. Both are perceived by Moscow primarily in terms of their political implications instead of just their military or economic significance.

In the case of INF modernization, what is at issue is the alliance's ability to override stiff domestic opposition in Europe and to prove to the Russians that NATO is capable of major joint rearmament efforts. In the case of the pipeline, the question is whether the West will succeed in developing a united policy on economic relations with the Soviet Union.

For Moscow, a great deal is riding an the outcome of both issues. If new NATO missiles are deployed in Europe and American sanctions manage, if not to halt the pipeline, then at least to restructure Moscow's access to Western credits and technology, the political "correlation of forces" in Europe will be dramatically altered to Moscow's disadvantage.

American success on both fronts would be a harsh blow to the Kremlin. It would, Moscow fears, mean a return to "containment plus" -- plus, in the sense that instability in Eastern Europe, unlike in the '50s, could provide the NATO Alliance with a real rather than a rhetorical opportunity to weaken the Soviet grip over its satellites. But if NATO modernization is torpedoed and the pipeline dispute leads to a transatlantic trade war, the Americans, not the Soviets, will be isolated.

In the '70s, the Soviet Union was not above exploiting American-European tensions. However, it had to weigh this temptation against the interests of maintaining detente with the United States. Now, it seems Moscow has given up on the Reagan administration. While it still shows a willingness to negotiate and does not want to be blamed for arms control deadlocks, the Soviet leadership does not expect any marked improvement in relations with the United States.

As Alexander Bovin, a Soviet commentator with close ties to the Soviet leadership, recently proclaimed: "American (read: Soviet) hopes that the Reagan team would learn as it went along have not been realized."

Bovin was speaking on Soviet television. He went on to make this unusually blunt assessment: "To be frank, I don't believe that any serious agreement can be reached with the Americans as long as Reagan is in the White House." Coming from a man known as a relatively soiphisticated moderate, this is an important declaration. And Bovin -- not surprisingly -- is not alone in this view. Zagladin of the Central Committee has publicly warned against any illlusions that relations with the United States can fundamentally improve as long as Reagan remains in power.

Apparently, the Kremlin does not consider the appointment of George Schultz as secretary of state as any grounds for altering this assessment. It is doubtful, in Bovin's view, that Schultz will be able to change the basic attitudes of the Reagan administration. At the same time, Bovin argues -- and his views appear to reflect the dominant school of thought in Moscow -- Reagan's behavior "opens up new possibilities for limiting and restricting Washington's adverse influence in world affairs."

In the past, there was less cause for concern that the U.S.S.R. would be able to exploit these "internal contradictions" to its advantage. But in the last few years, Soviet propaganda has become much more sophisticated and sensitive to political attitudes in Europe.

A perfect example is the impressive way the Soviets have manipulated the peace issue in Europe, playing on European insecurities and on loose talk from the Reagan administratrion about "limited nuclear war." Similarly, they are now trying to persuade the Europeans that new pipeline sanctions are not so much directed against Moscow, but are intended "to put the allies on their knees" and to undermine their economies allegedly in order to provide unfair competitive advantages to U.S. business.

It's important to note that though impressive, the Soviets' political offensive in Europe does not amount to a comprehensive strategy, because the Brezhnev leadership is unable to define priorities and to make tough choices.

If it could be more bold, the politburo might announce, for instance, Soviet readiness to cut SS-20 numbers by, let us say, half, if NATO agreed to cancel its modernization plans. This would be a masterful stroke. If the Soviet offer was rejected, as the Reagan administration would undoubtedly recommend, the European peace movement would gain new momentum, probably making deployment of American missiles impossible at no cost to the Russians. West German and other European leaders convinced the United States to accept the inevitable and to make a deal, the Kremlin would succeed in keeping an SS-20 force larger than than the one that originally prompted Helmut Schmidt to warn about the dangers of nuclear imbalance in the European theater five years ago.

Such boldness is apparently beyond the Kremlin's reach. Still, on a tactical level the Soviets have learned to make such arguments with considerable skill. Much of the credit for this effective diplomacy belongs to a new generation of Soviet foreign policy professionals who operate just below the Politburo level.

These "new look" Soviet officials are a far cry from the leaden, humorless heavies who spoke publicly for the Soviet Union in the past. They have had good international training. They are well traveled in the West and they are at ease with the European media. A special "International Information Department" was created in the Central Committee several years ago to coordinate the Soviets' propaganda offensive.

Its chief, Leonid Zamyatin, who acts as the spokesman for the Kremlin, was rated highly by American reporters during a joint press conferences with Jody Powell during the 1979 U.S.-Soviet summit between Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter. Zamyatin's deputy, Valentin Falin, a former ambassador to West Germany and one of the brightest and most experienced Soviet diplomats, is specifically entrusted with appealing to the West European public.

The department of international information works in close cooperation with other Soviet party and government agencies. Vadim Zagladin and his associate, Anatoliy Chernyaev, help the Zamyatin-Falin team from the Central Committee's influential international department. At the Foreign Ministry, two deputies, Georgy Kornienko and Anatoly Kovalev have reputations for professionalism and high visibility profiles. Even the general staff is involved. Col.-Gen. Nikolai Chevrov specializes in attending international conferences and granting interviews to the foreign press rebutting American claims of a Soviet threat and proclaiming his country's dedication to peace.

All these officials regularly travel across Europe, impressing their Western interlocutors with their relaxed manner, their mastery of facts and languages and their unfailing willingness to repeat the Soviet commitment to avoiding the "madness" of "unwinnable" nuclear war. They supervise the production of propoganda material filled with data regarding Soviet and Western military capabilities and designed to prove that the Reagan administration has no grounds for talking about the U.S.S.R.'s military superiority.

The quality of much of this material has impressed Western officials and experts. "Of course their data is selective, and their assessment of it is biased. But in comparison with (U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar) Weinberger's releases, Soviet productions do not look bad at all," according to one West German journalist. According to the same German, "Since naturally everybody expects the Russians to be more primitive and propagandistic than the Americans, by simply scoring equally, the Soviets achieve a political victory of sorts."

But if the Soviets deserve credit for more sophisticated propoganda, the more important fact should not be missed: Moscow's new prospects in Western Europe are due primarily not to its own master strokes but to Washington's serious errors.

What disturbs American friends in Europe and de Blights the Soviets is the Reagan administration's apparent inability to understand that there is a difference between exercising true leadership and issuing orders, particularly when it is clear in advance that these orders will be ignored, annoying both sides in the process.

The collapse of Bonn's left-of-center coalition will not significantly change the situation. Helmut Kohl, the Christian Democratic leader and likely chancellor in a new government, is on record supporting the Schmidt cabinet's opposition to U.S. sanctions. And the foreign minister in a new center-right government is likely to be the same Hans Dietrich Genscher who was Schmidt's foreign minister, and who is known to be as critical as Schmidt of Reagan's pipeline policies. If the Christian Democrats had been in power when the Siberian gas project was initiated, they might have been more sympathetic to American arguments. But at this late date the Christian Democrats see no possibility of abandoning the pipeline, regardless of President Reagan's appeals and pressures.

Neither the United States nor its European critics have a monopoly on wisdom and virtue. But the administration does not need to share European optimism about the potential for success of negotiations to control nuclear weapons to appreciate that for many allies vigorous pursuit of arms control is a domestic precondition for rearmament.

The administration does not have to be persuaded that economic cooperation with the Soviet Union serves the West to understand that sanctions against the allies is not the way to restrict trade with America's main adversary.

The administration is not obliged to abandon Reagan's beautiful dream of putting Soviet communism on the ash heap of history to realize that presenting it as a practical U.S. policy in a speech to the British parliament does not bring the dream any closer to fruition.

On the contrary, there is a real danger that, challenged to join an all-out ideological crusade, the allies may shy away from the much more urgent and realistic task of disciplining Soviet power and promoting peaceful change in Eastern Europe.

In short, regardless of whether the administration is closer to the truth than the Europeans in its assumptions of what track to take toward the Soviets, a refusal to face the limits imposed by the real world is ultimately self- defeating. Reagan may believe that he has a mandate to conduct a hard line policy toward the Soviet Union. But surely, he has no mandate -- and hopefully no intention -- to conduct such a policy in the face of inescapable evidence that the policy actually helps the Kremlin.

The United States has legitimate grievances against the allies, whose behavior can be infuriating. They will never offer the United States more than a troubled partnership. But this partnership is indispensable to U.S. security.

It would be tragic if the most anti-Soviet American government since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Moscow 50 years ago ended up promoting unilateral West European detente with its archrival.INF modernization, what is at issue is the alliance's ability to override stiff domestic opposition in Europe and to prove to the Russians that NATO is capable of major joint rearmament efforts. In the case of the pipeline, the question is whether the West will succeed in developing a united policy on economic relations with the Soviet Union.

For Moscow, a great deal is riding an the outcome of both issues. If new NATO missiles are deployed in Europe and American sanctions manage, if not to halt the pipeline, then at least to restructure Moscow's access to Western credits and technology, the political "correlation of forces" in Europe will be dramatically altered to Moscow's disadvantage.

American success on both fronts would be a harsh blow to the Kremlin. It would, Moscow fears, mean a return to "containment plus" -- plus, in the sense that instability in Eastern Europe, unlike in the '50s, could provide the NATO Alliance with a real rather than a rhetorical opportunity to weaken the Soviet grip over its satellites. But if NATO modernization is torpedoed and the pipeline dispute leads to a transatlantic trade war, the Americans, not the Soviets, will be isolated.

In the '70s, the Soviet Union was not above exploiting American-European tensions. However, it had to weigh this temptation against the interests of maintaining detente with the United States. Now, it seems Moscow has given up on the Reagan administration. While it still shows a willingness to negotiate and does not want to be blamed for arms control deadlocks, the Soviet leadership does not expect any marked improvement in relations with the United States.

As Alexander Bovin, a Soviet commentator with close ties to the Soviet leadership, recently proclaimed: "American (read: Soviet) hopes that the Reagan team would learn as it went along have not been realized."

Bovin was speaking on Soviet television. He went on to make this unusually blunt assessment: "To be frank, I don't believe that any serious agreement can be reached with the Americans as long as Reagan is in the White House." Coming from a man known as a relatively soiphisticated moderate, this is an important declaration. And Bovin -- not surprisingly -- is not alone in this view. Zagladin of the Central Committee has publicly warned against any illlusions that relations with the United States can fundamentally improve as long as Reagan remains in power.

Apparently, the Kremlin does not consider the appointment of George Schultz as secretary of state as any grounds for altering this assessment. It is doubtful, in Bovin's view, that Schultz will be able to change the basic attitudes of the Reagan administration. At the same time, Bovin argues -- and his views appear to reflect the dominant school of thought in Moscow -- Reagan's behavior "opens up new possibilities for limiting and restricting Washington's adverse influence in world affairs."

In the past, there was less cause for concern that the U.S.S.R. would be able to exploit these "internal contradictions" to its advantage. But in the last few years, Soviet propaganda has become much more sophisticated and sensitive to political attitudes in Europe.

A perfect example is the impressive way the Soviets have manipulated the peace issue in Europe, playing on European insecurities and on loose talk from the Reagan administratrion about "limited nuclear war." Similarly, they are now trying to persuade the Europeans that new pipeline sanctions are not so much directed against Moscow, but are intended "to put the allies on their knees" and to undermine their economies allegedly in order to provide unfair competitive advantages to U.S. business.

It's important to note that though impressive, the Soviets' political offensive in Europe does not amount to a comprehensive strategy, because the Brezhnev leadership is unable to define priorities and to make tough choices.

If it could be more bold, the politburo might announce, for instance, Soviet readiness to cut SS-20 numbers by, let us say, half, if NATO agreed to cancel its modernization plans. This would be a masterful stroke. If the Soviet offer was rejected, as the Reagan administration would undoubtedly recommend, the European peace movement would gain new momentum, probably making deployment of American missiles impossible at no cost to the Russians. West German and other European leaders convinced the United States to accept the inevitable and to make a deal, the Kremlin would succeed in keeping an SS-20 force larger than than the one that originally prompted Helmut Schmidt to warn about the dangers of nuclear imbalance in the European theater five years ago.

Such boldness is apparently beyond the Kremlin's reach. Still, on a tactical level the Soviets have learned to make such arguments with considerable skill. Much of the credit for this effective diplomacy belongs to a new generation of Soviet foreign policy professionals who operate just below the Politburo level.

These "new look" Soviet officials are a far cry from the leaden, humorless heavies who spoke publicly for the Soviet Union in the past. They have had good international training. They are well traveled in the West and they are at ease with the European media. A special "International Information Department" was created in the Central Committee several years ago to coordinate the Soviets' propaganda offensive.

Its chief, Leonid Zamyatin, who acts as the spokesman for the Kremlin, was rated highly by American reporters during a joint press conferences with Jody Powell during the 1979 U.S.-Soviet summit between Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter. Zamyatin's deputy, Valentin Falin, a former ambassador to West Germany and one of the brightest and most experienced Soviet diplomats, is specifically entrusted with appealing to the West European public.

The department of international information works in close cooperation with other Soviet party and government agencies. Vadim Zagladin and his associate, Anatoliy Chernyaev, help the Zamyatin-Falin team from the Central Committee's influential international department. At the Foreign Ministry, two deputies, Georgy Kornienko and Anatoly Kovalev have reputations for professionalism and high visibility profiles. Even the general staff is involved. Col.-Gen. Nikolai Chevrov specializes in attending international conferences and granting interviews to the foreign press rebutting American claims of a Soviet threat and proclaiming his country's dedication to peace.

All these officials regularly travel across Europe, impressing their Western interlocutors with their relaxed manner, their mastery of facts and languages and their unfailing willingness to repeat the Soviet commitment to avoiding the "madness" of "unwinnable" nuclear war. They supervise the production of propoganda material filled with data regarding Soviet and Western military capabilities and designed to prove that the Reagan administration has no grounds for talking about the U.S.S.R.'s military superiority.

The quality of much of this material has impressed Western officials and experts. "Of course their data is selective, and their assessment of it is biased. But in comparison with (U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar) Weinberger's releases, Soviet productions do not look bad at all," according to one West German journalist. According to the same German, "Since naturally everybody expects the Russians to be more primitive and propagandistic than the Americans, by simply scoring equally, the Soviets achieve a political victory of sorts."

But if the Soviets deserve credit for more sophisticated propoganda, the more important fact should not be missed: Moscow's new prospects in Western Europe are due primarily not to its own master strokes but to Washington's serious errors.

What disturbs American friends in Europe and de Blights the Soviets is the Reagan administration's apparent inability to understand that there is a difference between exercising true leadership and issuing orders, particularly when it is clear in advance that these orders will be ignored, annoying both sides in the process.

The collapse of Bonn's left-of-center coalition will not significantly change the situation. Helmut Kohl, the Christian Democratic leader and likely chancellor in a new government, is on record supporting the Schmidt cabinet's opposition to U.S. sanctions. And the foreign minister in a new center-right government is likely to be the same Hans Dietrich Genscher who was Schmidt's foreign minister, and who is known to be as critical as Schmidt of Reagan's pipeline policies. If the Christian Democrats had been in power when the Siberian gas project was initiated, they might have been more sympathetic to American arguments. But at this late date the Christian Democrats see no possibility of abandoning the pipeline, regardless of President Reagan's appeals and pressures.

Neither the United States nor its European critics have a monopoly on wisdom and virtue. But the administration does not need to share European optimism about the potential for success of negotiations to control nuclear weapons to appreciate that for many allies vigorous pursuit of arms control is a domestic precondition for rearmament.

The administration does not have to be persuaded that economic cooperation with the Soviet Union serves the West to understand that sanctions against the allies is not the way to restrict trade with America's main adversary.

The administration is not obliged to abandon Reagan's beautiful dream of putting Soviet communism on the ash heap of history to realize that presenting it as a practical U.S. policy in a speech to the British parliament does not bring the dream any closer to fruition.

On the contrary, there is a real danger that, challenged to join an all-out ideological crusade, the allies may shy away from the much more urgent and realistic task of disciplining Soviet power and promoting peaceful change in Eastern Europe.

In short, regardless of whether the administration is closer to the truth than the Europeans in its assumptions of what track to take toward the Soviets, a refusal to face the limits imposed by the real world is ultimately self- defeating. Reagan may believe that he has a mandate to conduct a hard line policy toward the Soviet Union. But surely, he has no mandate -- and hopefully no intention -- to conduct such a policy in the face of inescapable evidence that the policy actually helps the Kremlin.

The United States has legitimate grievances against the allies, whose behavior can be infuriating. They will never offer the United States more than a troubled partnership. But this partnership is indispensable to U.S. security.

It would be tragic if the most anti-Soviet American government since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Moscow 50 years ago ended up promoting unilateral West European detente with its archrival.

Dimitri K. Simes directs the Soviet and East European research program at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. F. Stephen Larrabee, a former member of the National Security Council staff, is a fellow in the same program.nstead of just their military or economic significance.

In the case of