Nearly three years after its political defeat over the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Western Europe, the Kremlin is attempting to enlist America's European allies in a diplomatic campaign for new arms control agreements.

Moscow's opening toward Western Europe has occurred gradually over the past several months with a series of foreign policy initiatives by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, including a visit to Paris last October. But it attained a particularly refined form last week when the Kremlin chief played host to President Francois Mitterrand and unashamedly plagiarized the Frenchman's favorite themes.

At a Kremlin banquet for Mitterrand, Gorbachev spoke in glowing terms of a new, more positive role for European countries in world affairs. He invoked Charles de Gaulle's vision of a Europe stretching "from the Atlantic to the Urals." He even managed to appropriate traditional French concern for human rights by insisting that the Soviet Union was ready for "international cooperation on humanitarian problems," adding for emphasis, "these are not just mere words."

Feted and flattered as the leader of a major power, Mitterrand later remarked wryly to associates that he had been "overtaken" by his Soviet host in his enthusiasm for Europe. He left Moscow praising Gorbachev as "a man of his time" with whom the West could do business.

The wooing of Mitterrand, who has taken a tough line toward Moscow in the past, provides evidence of Gorbachev's tactical flexibility as he pursues the larger goal of winning political and economic breathing space for the Soviet Union. It demonstrates that the Kremlin's diplomatic arsenal has developed well beyond the kind of crude bullying employed during the "Euromissiles crisis" when the Soviet Union targeted Western Europe with a large force of SS20 intermediate-range missiles.

Reflecting the new Kremlin policy, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze arrived in London today for two days of talks with Thatcher and other British officials.

Whether the Kremlin's new "charm offensive," as some European officials have dubbed it, will succeed where the old scare tactics failed is another matter, however. Conversations with Soviet officials and political commentators suggest that Gorbachev's new "multipolar" foreign policy is more the result of frustration with past diplomatic failures than any firm conviction that Europeans can be won over to Moscow's point of view.

An occasional visitor to Moscow is struck by the readiness of Soviet foreign policy analysts to concede that the Kremlin badly miscalculated western resolve in 1983. The tired old leaders who preceded Gorbachev are now being blamed for underestimating the ability of western governments to ride out a wave of protest demonstrations against the deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing missiles in retaliation for the SS20s.

"The old policy did not work. We concentrated too much on our relations with the United States and thought that European governments did not matter. That was a mistake. Public opinion is important, but so too are relations with governments," a Soviet foreign affairs specialist remarked.

A senior French official who accompanied Mitterrand to Moscow described Gorbachev's new-found enthusiasm for Europe as "largely tactical," a way of influencing the more important Soviet-U.S. relationship.

"We have no illusions about the Kremlin's use of its European card. Gorbachev is both more flexible and more dangerous than his predecessors. That does not necessarily imply any change in basic Soviet positions," he said.

According to this view, which is largely shared by western diplomats in Moscow, the Kremlin does not regard good relations with Western Europe as an alternative to good relations with the United States. At best, ties with Western Europe provide Moscow with a fallback position should its overtures to Washington fail. Gorbachev may also be hoping that West European leaders will bring pressure to bear on the Reagan administration to negotiate seriously.

Comparing the superpower relationship to an evolving chess game, a Soviet commentator remarked: "We know we are facing an opponent whose position is stronger than ours, but we also know we have to continue the game. We are trying to use our pieces in the most intelligent way."

One element in the Kremlin's new game plan is an attempt to portray Soviet foreign policy as dynamic and pragmatic at a time when U.S. policy has turned rigid. Soviet strategists evidently hope that Gorbachev's image as a vigorous leader, coupled with President Reagan's rejection of a string of Soviet "peace offers," will encourage West Europeans to view the two superpowers in a different light.

To underline this point, one Soviet commentator privately depicted Reagan as a kind of American Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev's decrepit and ideologically rigid predecessor. He made it quite clear that the comparison was intended as an insult.

An illustration of Gorbachev's tactical flexibility, some European diplomats say, was provided by his handling of the Chernobyl catastrophe this year. By presenting it as a lesson in the dangers of the uncontrolled use of nuclear power, he managed to breathe new life into the antinuclear movement in West Europe.

"He turned what should have been a major political setback to his own advantage. You need a certain aplomb to do that," commented an admiring French official.

Gorbachev's relative success in limiting the negative public relations impact of the Chernobyl disaster contrasted with the political insensitivity shown by the Kremlin in 1983 over the downing of a Korean airliner that killed 269 people. Western outrage at Soviet attempts to deny responsibility made it more difficult for the Kremlin to campaign against the deployment of U.S. missiles in West Europe.

While western officials are impressed by Gorbachev's diplomatic skills, they also believe that he has an uphill public relations battle in front of him.

"It is difficult for the Soviets to use the European card effectively. Any success they achieve with West European public opinion automatically leads to a counter-reaction," a German official said.

A similar paradox governs Soviet attempts to drive a wedge between the United States and Western Europe. Soviet success in splitting the western alliance makes it more difficult for the Kremlin to pursue its other goal of using Western Europe as a channel to the United States.

Explained a western diplomat in Moscow: "It suits the Soviets to play on the divisions within the western alliance. But they also are afraid that, if they go too far, West European leaders will no longer be able to exercise a moderating influence in Washington. They cannot have it both ways."