THE KREMLIN'S likely use of chemical and biological weapons in Southeast Asia and perhaps in Afghanistan poses questions that have not yet been generally recognized, much less answered. Why have the nations of the world responded so limply to the growing evidence that the U.S.S.R. has been flagrantly violating a treaty commitment for five years? Is it that the victims are not white citizens of industrialized nations, but brown and yellow inhabitants of poor countries? Why have developing nations refused to recognize the implications for their own security of the development of these cheap and easily accessible weapons of mass death?

For the United States and its NATO allies, there are additional, urgent questions. What does the probable violation of both bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements, including the one treaty -- the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention -- initiated as a unilateral disarmament step by the United States, say about the thinking in the Kremlin and the value it attaches to any type of arms control? What does it say about political will in the West that Washington has so far been unable to hold the Soviets politically accountable, or even to generate much interest in the subject? Are there lessons in this and in the Sverdlovsk incident concerning the utility of sanctions in treaties with Moscow? At Sverdlovsk, an apparent outbreak of deadly anthrax may have indicated Soviet biological weapons work; the true facts may never be known.

The United States has made some effort to publicize the evidence it has found of the likelihood of Soviet biological and chemicals weapons use. But it has done so largely at a level below that which the seriousness of the issue warrants. And it has devoted far too few resources to proving beyond doubt the accuracy of its allegations. What is called for is less inflammatory rhetoric, more diplomatic legwork and presidential involvement in explaining the implications of these apparent violations and in enlisting other nations' support in the United Nations investigation of them. The administration has done too little to heed its own reminder that this is not a U.S.-Soviet issue, but a truly global one.

The one concrete step the United States has taken -- breaking an 11-year moratorium with the decision to build a facility to produce binary chemical weapons -- is the wrong one. Chemical weapons are tools of limited military utility against a prepared opponent like the Soviet Union. In a European war, their principal victims will be civilians. Because of this, a wartime decision to use them would be likely to disrupt, rather than to protect, NATO. The single argument in their favor is the strategists' dictum that the only way to deter a Soviet chemical attack is to be prepared to respond in kind. In fact, better weapons are available. The needed deterrent is the arming of Western troops with the protective gear that can largely negate a chemical attack. In this essential step, the United States and its allies have been remiss.

Perhaps the underlying explanation for the feeble worldwide response to Soviet use of chemical and biological weapons is a feeling that these are outmoded weapons, effective in World War I, but rendered obsolete by the atomic bomb. The truth is just the opposite. These are weapons capable of dealing death and destruction on a scale comparable to nuclear weapons. The difference is that they are generally far cheaper, less technologically demanding and more accessible to terrorists.