The timing of the sudden Kremlin move against the Soviet Union's most prominent dissident, Dr. Andrei Sakharov, puts new strain on East-West detente as a whole as well as on US-Soviet ties.
Dr. Sakharov and his wife were flown to internal exile in the city of Gorky on Jan. 22.
Dr. Sakharov has long symbolized the Soviet dissident movement. He is a world-known figure because of his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, his stature as a nuclear physicist, and his 12 years of work on behalf of Soviet dissidents.
Action against him came as President Carter was trying to gain support for shifting or boycotting the Olympic games in July, to isolate Moscow diplomatically after the Soviet strike into Afghanistan, and to counter Soviet missiles with increased long-range defense spending at home and in NATO.
The move against Dr. Sakharov may help the President in all those fields, it is thought here.
The Sakharovs' exile seems certain to intensify and prolong world criticisms. Earlier reports of deportation proved incorrect.
Speculation in Moscow was that the Soviets wanted Dr. Sakharov away from the capital where he would be a magnet for human rights sympathizers during the Olympic Games. The games are expected to draw 300,000 foreign tourists -- if they still go ahead.
Some sources suggest the Soviets decided to sweep aside the restraints that have protected Dr. Sakharov until now because the Kremlin felt it had little more to lose with Washington.
Detente already is severely strained over Afghanistan and Soviet criticisms of US efforts so far to free the 50 hostages in Tehran.
Some Westerners believe Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev may be losing his pro-detente grip inside the Politburo -- a view impossible to prove from the outside -- or that he may have been persuaded that President Carter is too weak a leader to react strongly.
This latter view holds that the Kremlin threatens mankind. A long essay in 1968 attracted world headlines.
Since then he has labored on behalf of a wide range of dissidents, from human rights activists to Jews to Christians to nationalists in Lithuania and elsewhere.
He was refused permission to collect his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize in person. His wife accepted it instead on her way home after an eye operation in Italy.
Dr. Sakharov argues that the outside help of American presidents and other figures is essential to reform the Soviet internal system and end violations of human rights.
He differs in emphasis from such others as Marxist historian Roy Medvedev, who says the main impetus for internal reform must come from within.
Dr. Sakharov's apartment on Moscow's garden ring road has been a haven for dissidents of all kinds. He speaks in a gentle voice that barely conceals his outrage and desperation at what he see as wholesale violations of basic individual rights here.
First word of the Soviet move came in a telephone call from a woman who did not identify herself. She said Dr. Sakharov had been detained by police near his apartment.
Western correspondents were turned away from the Sakharov apartment by two policemen, who told them to get back into the elevator and leave the building.
A Jewish dissident telephoned to say Sakharov had been arrested. The government newspaper Izvestia reported late Jan. 22 that Dr. Sakharov had been stripped of all his titles and awards because of "subversive activities."
"Ignoring . . . warnings, Sakharov lately embarked on the road of open calls to reactionary circles of imperialist states to interfere in the USSR's internal affairs," Izvestia said.
Action against Dr. Sakharov also followed a new series of dissident arrests here, including Fr. Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest; Tatyana Velikanova, a human rights activist and member of the Helsinki human rights group; and Lithuanian nationalist Antanas terleckas, an economist and historian.