The Soviets now say they may be willing to supply troops for United Nations peacekeeping missions - something they and Americans have deliberately refrained from doing in the past.

Some 10,000 of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.N. forces are stationed in the Middle East and Asia. Thus far, the only superpower participants have been unarmed observers working with one small monitoring team in Jerusalem.But, however well-intentioned the new Soviet desire to help may be, lending its troops is a bad idea.

The East-West debate already tends to dominate too many international efforts, and the presence of Soviet soldiers in the U.N. ranks would only aggravate that tendency.

That does not mean, though, that the Americans and Soviets should not help with peacekeeping. A UPI report says the United States owes $70 million and Moscow owes $200 million in support for the missions.

Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky says his country will make up its back payments in the next two or three years. The United States should do the same.

The peacekeeping forces do an important job deserving of wholehearted support. But the world's two most powerful nations should take special care not to undermine the very thing that makes those forces effective - their neutrality.