MOSCOW — A FEW days after the coalition air strike that began the war in the Gulf region, a liberal member of the Soviet foreign policy establishment raised his glass in a dinner toast. ``To the quick victory of the United States in the Gulf, with as little loss as possible,'' he said. ``It will not only be a victory for you Americans, but also for us inside the Soviet Union.''
This was not simply an expression of coalition solidarity. The military is watching events in the Gulf closely, the expert, a specialist in security affairs at a prestigious Soviet think tank, explained. A victory - ``not just a victory, but a landslide victory'' - could significantly restrain the lurch to the right in the Soviet Union, in which the military is playing a key role. The display of US military might, he implied, might cause the Soviet military to think twice about further use of force in the Baltics or elsewhere.
There is already evidence that the Gulf war is causing important reverberations in the ongoing battle over the course of Soviet politics. The democratic left clearly identifies itself with the West; and its conservative Communist opponents, with the Iraqis.
At the massive Jan. 20 democratic rally in Moscow, numerous posters made this link: ``Oust the Saddams of the Communist Party!'' Others referred to ``Saddam Gorbachev'' or ``Mikhail Saddamovich Gorbachev.'' Meanwhile, a small conservative Communist rally on Jan. 19 was attended by numerous Iraqi and Palestinian students carrying posters of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In the conservative center, a more subtle view is emerging in the Soviet press questioning both the need for military action and US motives. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, former Soviet Army chief of staff, wrote on Jan. 21 in the Communist Party daily Pravda that ``the failure to use all opportunities for a peaceful settlement of the conflict and the breakout of war in this dangerous region causes deep regret.''
A Jan. 22 commentary in the trade union daily Trud questions whether diplomacy was given a chance, citing the efforts of Soviet special envoy Yevgeny Primakov as ``a good attempt to establish a dialogue with the Iraqi leader which by all appearances did not find support in Western capitals.''
``The USA, of course, fights in the Persian Gulf for its economic interests,'' Pravda's New York correspondent wrote Jan. 22, referring to oil.
The political differences are also reflected in military assessments of the war, which have appeared in the Soviet press.
``Preliminary analysis indicates that the US and its allies achieved operational surprise, relying on their overwhelming advantage in strength and means of electric warfare,'' wrote Maj. Gen. G. Zhivitsa, deputy chief of the Center for Operational and Tactical Research in the Soviet General Staff in the liberal government daily Izvestia on Jan. 19. He noted how Soviet-made radar and anti-aircraft systems were almost completely destroyed.
The US advantage, General Zhivitsa said, was not limited to hardware. Having a professional army gave the US a ``quality advantage,'' an implicit attack on the Soviet Defense Ministry's opposition to forming a professional army, a policy advocated here by reform circles within the military.
``The result of the war is predestined by the fact that the coalition forces, from the very outset, snatched the initiative and won air superiority,'' writes Lt. Gen. V. Gorbachev in a Jan. 22 comment in Izvestia.
Maj. Gen. A. Ivanov, writing in the Jan. 19 Trud, offers a contrasting assessment. ``The efficiency of the first blows were a little bit exaggerated.''
Conservative commentator Vitaly Kobysh made a reappearance, after a long absence, in Izvestia, where he charged US claims of success on the first day were ``crude disinformation'' that ``even we Soviet people became the victims of.''
``The view of the overwhelming majority of the people in the world is one: to stop the massacre, the tests of wonderful bombers that cannot be seen, and to sit at the negotiating table,'' he added.