How the Kremlin misread the times

The message did get through. The men in the Kremlin know that they have shocked and disturbed and worried almost the whole of the noncommunist world by invading Afghanistan. There are penalties and they are aware of the penalties.

The proof is in their protestations of injured innocence. When they sent their tanks into East Berlin, into Hungary, and into Czechoslovakia they were defiant. They did what they thought they had to do and shrugged their shoulders over the protests that came from outside. They didn't bother much to try to explain or excuse.

This time Moscow propaganda is neither truculent nor defiant, but full of lame excuses, unconvincing explanations, and protestations of good will and best intent. In their version of the story they had to send their troops into Afghanistan to protect the Afghans from American subversion. But, they insist, it is only temporary, and they will soon take their troops away. And besides, they have not the slightest intention of harming anyone else, they say. And they want detente to continue.

Which means that the reaction has been stiffer and more damaging to their interests then they expected it to be. They must have miscalculated.

It would not be the first time. They thought it would be harmless enough to let the North Koreans invade South Korea. At least, that is the way Nikita Khrushchev tells it in his memoirs, "Khrushchev Remembers." And they most certainly did not expect the defiant reaction that came from their attempt to seize West Berlin by blockade. But they did get away with it over East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The West tacitly accepted that those countries were part of Moscow's domain.

Not so Afghanistan. This time not only has President Carter of the USA done everything he possibly could to penalize them, and not only has China broken off "normalization" talks, and not only have the West Europeans declared their loyalty to NATO, but also most of the nonaligned world and all the countries of Islam that are free to do so have condemned the deed. Perhaps most surprising of all to the Russians, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran has joined in the condemnation and pledged Iranian support to the Afghan Muslim fighters against the new Soviet-supported regime in Kabul.

Back when the Iranian "students" seized the US Embassy in Tehran and made hostages of those they found inside, many a Western diplomat put his mind to task of trying to think up a device to bridge the sudden and dangerous gap that had opened between the United States and Iran. None at that time could come up with any quick and sure solution. About all anyone could do then was to pray for a "miracle."

Well, the men of Moscow provided the "miracle." They invaded Afghanistan and thereby gave Washington and the Ayatollah a common interest. It became a bridge over which UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim walked, and reopened the way toward indirect relations and negotiations.

Western diplomats also have been working long for another broader purpose; the improving of relations between the United States and Islam.The going has been difficult and tedious and slow. It still will take time. A satisfactory conclusion to the talks for Palestinian autonomy will have to be completed.

But thanks to the Soviet miscalculation about Afghanistan, progress is being made. It will not be altogether surprising if before the summer is out the hostages have been set free, safely, and Israel has come to accept bona fide self-rule for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. The trend has set in that direction.

According to the Moscow propaganda line, there is greater tension in East-West relations because the US has gone over from a policy of coexistence to a policy of confrontation. That contention that there is now a dangerous confrontation has roused a war scare. The Western press is full of discussions of the possibility of war. Some articles have examined the question of whether there could be a limited and conventional war in the Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf area between the US and the USSR.

Is world disapproval and condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan actually increasing the danger of war?

The Moscow propagandists say that it has -- and blame it all on President Carter for allegedly scrapping detente. But when West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Giscard d'Estaing met in Paris this past week, neither of them acted scared. They declared their staunch loyalty to the NATO alliance and pledged to carry out their commitments to increase their military contributions to NATO. They did not panic.

Mr. Carter's purpose has been to make sure that the Soviets did not take Afghanistan "with impunity." They have not done it without paying a penalty. That they know it we on the outside can read from between the lines of the following statement by Leonid Brezhnev at a Kremlin dinner on Feb. 4:

"We consider it indispensable to move forward. This is true with regard to the arms race, to eliminating conflict situations in Southeast Asia and the Middle and Near East, and to transforming the Indian Ocean into a zone of peace. To us any road is desirable if it leads to a lasting peace."

Other speeches at the same dinner and various articles in Pravda and other official publications have all been stressing the determination of the Kremlin to "press on" for peace, disarmament, and all the "good things" that are usually lumped under the word detente. As foreseen by several experienced Kremlin watchers, the invasion of Afghanistan has been followed by a fully orchestrated "peace offensive." Injured innocence is being worn in Moscow.

It would seem to be safe to conclude that neither war nor any other offensive Soviet adventure is likely in the immediate future. The forecast seems to be for more "injured innocence" and angelic behavior -- at least until the dust settles over Afghanistan.

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