The tragic end of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 raises a number of disturbing questions about the mindset and modus operandi of the Soviet superpower. Can their military be so incompetent that it would not see the difference between a jumbo passenger jet and a much smaller reconnaissance plane? Or are we confronted with the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians? Do the Soviet regime and Soviet people in general reject the value of human life? Shouldn't the Politburo be ashamed to be exposed as a liar to the whole world? And finally , what kind of a regime are we dealing with? Can any business be conducted with such a brutal and cynical government?
These are tough questions. And on the aftermath of the tragedy there is an understandable temptation to assume the worst. But in reality there are no easy one-dimensional answers.
It would be inexcusable for the sake of expediency in US-Soviet relations to forget and forgive the appalling side of the Soviet political personality so vividly demonstrated in the last two weeks. But it would also be unfortunate if, overtaken by emotions, Americans would learn the wrong lesson and refuse to work together with the Soviet Union even when it is in the economic and security interests of the US.
To put the Soviet ''termination'' of KAL Flight 007 in the proper perspective it is important to take into account that according to mounting evidence the Soviets are guilty of criminal negligence rather than an intentional atrocity.
The tapes of Soviet interceptors' conversations with their ground control indicate that an effort was made to approach the Korean plane through a system of electronic interrogation known as ''identify friend or foe.''
This system, as US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was quick to point out, is installed only on military planes. Chances are that the Soviet pilot indeed believed that he was pursuing a hostile aircraft. The fact that Soviet interceptors tried cannon fire before launching their missiles also may indicate that Moscow was telling the truth when it talked of the Korean plane failing to respond to warning shots.
Needless to say, the Soviets were still obliged to make absolutely sure that they knew exactly what kind of a ''target'' they were planning to terminate. The additional effort was not made probably because KAL 007 was about to leave Russian airspace and Soviet air defense commanders, pressed to make a quick decision, were concerned above all else with not letting the ''intruder'' escape.
The decision should tell us something about fundamental Soviet values. But what? The Soviet attitude toward human life is very different from the American perspective. On one hand, when friends or acquaintances are concerned, Russians may be unsurpassed in their devotion, in their willingness to help even at the cost of a tremendous sacrifice. But strangers represent a totally different category. The supreme value of human life as an abstract concept is foreign to the Russian mindset.
The lives of most Soviet people have been too hard, too filled with tragedy and senseless death to encourage compassion for anyone beyond their immediate circle of family, friends and colleagues. And the regime is built on the philosophy that interests of the state are by definition more important than those of any single individual, that the nation's borders are more sacred than any human lives. It was a combination of this deep-rooted conviction and of the sheer incompetence of Soviet interceptor pilots who failed to identify the Boeing 747 that determined the fate of KAL 007.
And what about the Soviet cover-up? The western civilization assumes that there is inherent virtue in telling the truth. Lying is considered immoral by definition. Not so in many other political cultures where prestige, loyalty or just reluctance to offend take predence.
Anyone familiar with Russia is aware that traditionally, misrepresenting the facts for a ''good cause'' is much more socially acceptable than in the West. Under the Soviet regime several generations have been brought up in a social climate hardly conducive to cultivating honesty. There were no grounds to conclude that truthfulness would be rewarded and conversely, that lies would be punished. As a rule, the opposite was and still is true.
The Soviet regime also does not assume that revealing the truth before world opinion would bring any political rewards. Those who rule Russia take for granted that the world outside their control does not wish them well, and would never treat them fairly unless forced to do so by a favorable ''correlation of forces.''
That does not mean that the Soviets never negotiate in earnest at all. When the successful outcome of the talks is in their interest, when adequate verification procedures are available and when its partner at the bargaining table is strong and determined enough to impose a sufficient penalty for cheating, the Kremlin's word can be relied upon within reasonable margins. The downing of the Korean airliner does not prove that it is impossible to conduct business with the Soviet Union.
What it does prove is that the West is confronted with a huge, insensitive and self-righteous military empire obsessed with security, but often clumsy in protecting it. Its rulers, and unfortunately their subjects as well, are not people like us.
Yet - even if they frequently appear to act as their own worst enemies - members of the Politburo appreciate strength and are eager to win the acceptance and cooperation of the West. They should never be offered free lunches, and should always be reminded of the power and will of America. And the West will be wise to maintain a certain distance in dealing with a government so alien to our values. Still, foreign policy is often an unhappy business and developing relations with the Kremlin remains an unpleasant necessity of our time.