It is not only hockey in which the Soviet Union has been having troubles. Evidence accumulates on Moscow's difficulties in Afghanistan and, in long-range terms, elsewhere. While the Russians' arms buildup and apparent global ambitions must not be minimized, a look at their problems is necessary for rational perspective rather than unreasoning alarm in the rest of the world.
Most immediately dramatic is the Soviets' Afghanistan quagmire. But there is also a challenge to the notion of Moscow's inevitable momentum as an influential power in the record of its advances and setbacks in various countries since World War II.
The Afghanistan adventure may be symbolized by the fact that one of the invading Soviet officers had to borrow a tourist map from a reporter covering the invasion. The reporter, Robert Fisk, gave his firsthand account of Moscow's ill-prepared assault, with its mounting negative consequences, in this newspaper earlier in the week. It came on the heels of a study by a Paris-based defense analysis group, Hudson Research Europe, which found that, for Russia, the situation in Afghanistan was worse than before its intervention in December: "The native Afghan army has collapsed and the Soviets are now fighting, not in defense of an ally or puppet, but in defense of their own reputation."
Moscow's reputation, such as it is, had already suffered the moral condemnation of most of the world. Now it is facing what it cares about more -- loss of reputation in terms of effective power.
How competent do Moscow's military commanders look when they fail to predict the strength of resistance by Afghan rebels? When they plunge in with insufficient forces? These are only two of the questions raised by the accounts of Soviet problems in Afghanistan.
There have been further defections from the Afghan Army which Radio Kabul says is doing the fighting while it implausibly denies the use of Soviet troops. The disparate guerrillas have been forming a degree of unity against the aggressors. Some Army units and the rebels have made unofficial agreements not to shoot each other unless personally attacked. Civilians have turned to rioting and the closing of shops.
Soviet concern may be indicated by going to the extreme of using nerve gas on civilians, including children, as charged by the International League for Human Rights based in Paris. It says that 130,000 Afghans fled from villages destroyed by Soviet forces near the Pakistan border.
Comparisons with Vietnam are not unexpectedly being made. The United States had a long supply line to Vietnam in contrast with the Soviet Union on the borders of Afghanistan. It faced not just guerrillas but a regular military outfit from North Vietnam. It had opposition on the home front, which Moscow hardly has to worry about. But in other respects Russia appears to be confronted by tougher problems in Afghanistan: a population of similar size (18 million) but an area almost four times the size of South Vietnam; worse terrain; worse communications. The list could go on. As Hudson Research Europe says:
"Since South Vietnam could not be held by local forces numbering one million in addition to US forces of 535,000 it is hardly credible that a vastly larger and hence more sparsely populated Afghanistan can be pacified by a dubiously loyal government army of 40,000 with Soviet forces of a mere 100,000."
To go from this intense local situation to Moscow's power position in the world is to see that there is still little reason for jubilation in the Kremlin. The latest study of Russia in the world scene is by the Center for Defense Information, a Washington research group known for arms control advocacy. It finds that Soviet influence peaked with significant influence in 14 percent of the world's countries in the late 1950s. Today it has declined to 12 percent, just 19 of the present 155 nations.
But the numbers do not tell the whole story. Here are other points made:
* "The Soviets have been successful in gaining influence primarily among the world's poorest and most desperate countries.
* "Soviet foreign involvement has to a large extent been shaped by indigenous conditions and the Soviets have been unable to command loyalty or obedience.
* "Soviet setbacks in China, Indonesia, Egypt, India, and Iraq dwarf marginal Soviet advances in lesser countries.
* "Temporary Soviet successes in backward countries have proved costly to the Soviet Union. They provide no justification for American alarmism or military intervention. U.S. policies should emphasize our non-military advantages in the competition for world influence."
The world must be alert to Moscow's muscle and machinations. But it must be soberly realistic, too.