Soviet diplomatic strategy is taking a new tack in an effort to limit the intense criticism of its invasion of Afghanistan. For the next few months, it is likely to look like this:
1. A sustained "peace offensive." The Kremlin will proclaim it wants detente and arms control in Europe and stability in Asia and the Islamic world -- and that the United States does not.
Nevertheless, Soviet troops probably will stay in Afghanistan for a long time. "Soviet soldiers are still in Czechoslovakia 12 years after they went in, " one diplomat here says. "The Soviets have no history of removing troops from buffer areas."
2. Concentrated efforts to portray Afghanistan, not as part of a global issue where Soviet actions have threatened established order and rules, but simply as an East-West dispute. In this reading, the Soviets have merely beaten the United States to the punch in a remote land where, Moscow now argues, the Soviets have vital interests but the US has none.
3. Hard work within the Muslim world to hide the fact that none of the three Afghan leaders it has backed since April, 1978, has been able to win broad popular support there; each was forced to rely instead on Soviet military (and economic) aid.
Specifically, Soviet diplomacy will try to blunt or head off the meeting of Islamic foreign ministers set for Jan. 26 in Islamabad, Pakistan.
As part of this aim, Moscow will seize on any reports of American help to Afghan guerrillas. Already, ignoring US denials, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev has escalated the size of the threat Moscow says Kabul faced from guerrillas trained abroad. Mr. Brezhnev now says these amounted to "tens of thousands -- whole armed units." US officials in Washington scoff at the claim.
These lines of Soviet strategy emerge from diplomats, observers, and others studying Soviet statements, particularly Mr. Brezhnev's long pronouncement on Page 1 of Pravda Jan. 14.
Mr. Brezhnev's remarks, read out over Soviet TV and radio, appeared an effort to refute various Western criticisms that Soviet citizens may have heard on Western shortwave broadcasts, as well as to throw down a gauntlet to Mr. Carter.
They seemed to ensure that the climate of detente will not improve much before the Moscow Olympics in July -- though the Soviet hope is that the West's memory will be short and normal relations will return before long.
Sources here believe the Politburo seriously miscalculated the amount of criticism it would receive in Africa, Asia, and the Islamic world. Already 10 Muslim countries, as well as several in Africa and Asia, have expressed alarm.
"The overriding issue now is whether the world's reaction will be sustained or not," says one informed observer here. "Will it be like 1968 in Prague, when we went back to business as usual fairly soon? Or will it be like Prague and Eastern Europe in 1948 when Soviet power moved into Eastern Europe and NATO was the result?"
Soviet propaganda against the US today is daily, broadbrush, sweeping, emotional. If often lacks logic: Rarely does it mention US hostages in Tehran, or Soviet SS-20 missiles in the western USSR, and it never gets into such issues as who killed former President Amin of Afghanistan or why the coup was announced on the frequency of Radio Tashkent (USSR) while Radio Kabul was still playing normal programs.