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The Kremlin grapples with its global chessboard and Andropov's legacy

By EARL W. FOELL / February 24, 1984



The 12 current members of the Soviet Politburo must by now have finished their rundown of who-does-what-now and moved on to reviewing domestic and foreign plans.

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Domestic projects will come first. Then a look at the world chessboard. Both are likely to be scrutinized with an eye to costs vs. benefits.

On the domestic side, one ticklish question will be who is to ride herd over Yuri Andropov's modest industrial-management reforms. The cautious Andropov decentralization of authority in a few industries was announced last summer. But it has actually been under way less than two months.

Similar plans in the late 1960s were personally backed by Premier Alexei Kosygin. But they were nevertheless swallowed up by entrenched central planners, and their economist author eventually denounced them. So what happens to the small Andropov legacy is of great symbolic importance.

Politburo assessments of the value-vs.-cost of Soviet pieces on the world chessboard are also of large symbolic importance.

The chief decisions facing the 12 men in the Kremlin are wrapped up in relations with the United States. Can both sides begin to talk to each other, not merely to the propaganda grandstands? Can they put aside the deep suspicions that lie behind ''evil empire'' and ''new Hitler'' talk, and manage to wrap all their missile talks together in one seriously negotiated package?

Those are the central questions. But the cost/benefit ratios of other chess pieces are of great interest also. Konstantin Chernenko and his veteran defense chief, Dmitri Ustinov, cannot overlook a number of pawns that once were cheap at the price but are net drains on the budget today.

Angola and Ethiopia are obvious examples. The price of maintaining both Cuban and Soviet establishments in those two areas of Africa almost certainly outstrips potential benefits. This is particularly true of Angola now that South Africa has patched together at least a medium-range truce with both Angola and Mozambique.

Syria and Iraq, on the other hand, probably appear to reward Moscow with sufficient leverage to justify military aid costs. But neither is without risk.

Moscow's Damascus connection certainly provides some leverage over events in Lebanon. But it also carries the risk of renewed confrontation between Soviet SAM missile crews and Israeli aircraft. The withdrawal of the US Marines lessens chances of an accidental superpower collision but removes the Western force buffer that had kept Israel away from frontline action in Lebanon until this week.

Kremlin influence over Syrian President Hafez Assad is hardly a sure thing. And in any case, the aid to Damascus does not extend Soviet power into the crucial areas of (1)Israeli-Palestinian relations or (2)the power structure of the oil-rich Gulf states.

What has been widely billed in the American news media as a defeat for Reagan policy - the pullout of the Marines - is, more correctly, merely confirmation of a misjudgment made some 19 months ago. The pullout of Western units in and around Beirut merely cuts losses from a string of decisions dating back to June of 1982. The sequence began in Gen. Alexander Haig's State Department, when the then secretary of state tacitly agreed to the Sharon-Begin invasion of Lebanon.

That led to a diversion of US negotiating efforts. Instead of concentrating on Israeli-Palestinian matters (West Bank autonomy talks) Washington found itself increasingly sucked into (1)efforts to patch together a new coalition regime in Lebanon and (2)military policing (not really peacekeeping) in place of the partly withdrawn Israeli invasion force.