THE MOMENTOUS East-West political confrontation brought on by the Kremlin's deployment of new missiles in Europe continues to unfold. Its latest episode finds West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Moscow. He talked straight, reminding the Soviet leadership that his government speaks for a majority and that, in the absence of a Soviet-American agreement, it will stick by its decision to receive countering new American missiles starting in December. It was a useful message, coming from the NATO country that is on the front line.

It has to be said, however, that there were no signs that the Kohl message has gotten through. Yuri Andropov himself got out of a sickbed to lend his personal prestige anew to the Soviet protest against the new American missiles. If they are deployed, said the Soviet leader, the threat to West Germany "will grow manifold." He termed it a "profound and dangerous delusion" for anyone to think that Western deployment would wring concessions from Moscow.

Meanwhile, the reports from Geneva indicate deadlock at the negotiating table. Optimists on the American side do not expect the Soviets to show serious interest in an agreement, if at all, until deployment begins. Pessimists expect deployment merely to trigger the next stage of Soviet endeavor to split the United States from its allies.

It is this specter of stalemate, leading to deployment, new tensions and further deployments, that is responsible for the call increasingly heard in the West for a saving intervention at the highest political level--perhaps at a Soviet-American summit.

We are less interested in a summit than in some greater assurance that each side has taken the measure of what the other finds truly unacceptable.

What is unacceptable to the United States is for the Soviet Union to alter unilaterally in its favor the previous relatively stable nuclear balance in a region of paramount American interest. Moscow did this by deploying the SS20s.

What is unacceptable to the Soviet Union is for Washington, in the course of righting that regional balance, to pose a new first-strike threat. The United States will do this by deploying 108 Pershing IIs with, the Kremlin fears, the range and accuracy to hit command and communication centers around Moscow. The other American missile slated for deployment, the cruise, is a lesser threat.

The appeal of the "walk in the woods" formula that had a brief life a year ago was that it went to the essence of both countries' concern. The United States got back equality in Europe. The Soviet Union was released from the fear of an eight-minute strike on its most sensitive targets.

As far as is known, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States has proposed any new formula similarly respectful of both sides' basic interests. That is the challenge posed now to the two leaderships, urgently.