In a rare disclosure of senior Soviet attitudes toward Afghanistan and US countermeasures, including the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Soviet sources here acknowledge that Moscow made one error of tactics in Afghanistan. But they insist the Kremlin is determined to exercise control there.
The Kremlin also sees a historic shift in the world's strategic balance, the sources say, and demands that the US acknowledge it, painful as that will be for American public opinion.
Meanwhile, two public attacks on alleged US spying in the Soviet Union in three days, plus some harassment of US military attaches traveling in Central Asia recently, indicate a worsening of the atmosphere here in the next few months.
Some Western sources worry that the next step could be physical actions against Americans living here or, at the least, condemnation of specific individuals.
The error in Afghanistan was the assassination of former Afghan President Hafizullah Amin, the Soviet sources acknowledged. "Better if he had stayed alive," this corespondent was told. "Those Afghans kill each other anyway [a reference to frequent political assassinations in recent years], so better to let events take their course."
Reports have circulated for weeks in Moscow and Washington that the Soviet official held responsible for the killing (thought to have occurred Dec. 27 last year during a Soviet assault on the Darulaman Palace during the coup that installed Babrak Karmal in power) was Lt.-Gen. Viktor Paputin, the No. 2 man in the Soviet Interior Ministry (MVD).
Rumors said General Paputin was summarily recalled to Moscow but committed suicide on the plane rather than face censure here. But the Soviet sources told me General Paputin committed suicide in his own Moscow apartment, while his wife was in another room, thinking he was planning a visit to their dacha.
Pravda Jan. 3 published a very small death notice on its back page giving the general's date of death as Dec. 28. As a nonvoting member of the Communist Party Central Committee, General Paputin rated a much larger notice signed by more prominent officials then those in the party and the MVD ( the internal political police and security organization) who actually did sign. $S ources agreed General Paputin was in disgrace over the Amin Episode. He has since been replaced by Leonid brezhnev's son-in-law, Yuri Churbanov, a fast-rising man of 44 who is also a lieutenant general. He is married to Mr. Brezhnev's daughter Galina.
On the shift in the world strategic balance, sources said in effect:
"At the end of World War II Truman ordered the Soviets out of Persia in 48 hours and we went. After all, you had the atom bomb. In the 1950s you were stronger than us militarily. In 1962 you made us back down in Cuba. But we told ourselves it would never happen again.
"Today we are equal to you in military strength. We have reestablished the situation under the tsars: We rank as an equal, independent power, and no one can threaten us. No one can order us around, tell us what to do. "We don't really want Afghan territory. It's hard to administer and expensive for us to have troops there. But we don't want you to have it either. That's the important point."
The sources said Soviet intelligence had reported that former President Amin was looking around for American aid in Afghanistan because he disliked the Kremlin so much. The sources said the final meeting between Nur Muhammad Taraki and Mr. Brezhnev in Moscow in September last year had been unhappy: Mr. Taraki begged Mr. Brezhnev to send in troops against Mr. Amin, but Mr. Brezhnev refused.
When Mr. Taraki (who had ousted President Daoud in a coup in April 1978) returned to Kabul, Mr. Amin had him shot, explaining later he had acted in self-defense. Mr. Amin and the Soviets were at daggers drawn.
Soviet sources said that Soviet intelligence also indicated Mr. Amin was planning a massive strike against his enemies Dec. 29 -- a point previously made by the Soviet press.
"We have told the Americans that Afghangovernments, including Taraki, asked us 12 or 14 times to send in troops. No government can survive there without troops" -- a revealing statement, meaning no communist-leaning government can survive without troops.
As for US measures including the embargo of 17 million tons of grain and a threatened boycott of the Moscow Olympics, the sources said:
"You are simply forcing us to be more self-sufficient. Russia is usually in a mess internally, and we need an outside enemy to stimulate us, someone we can blame for all our ills.
"Now we can blame the Americans for any meat shortages next year, and grain shortages this year. We are much more serious about our agriculture now. We spend much more money on it and improvements are on the way.
"The Olympics? They're not so important. So you won't come and play games with us? You won't shake our hands and compete with us? Then to hell with you. You are doing small things, nasty things. If you go on, you'll push our people into slashing your tires in Moscow and so on, and things will get worse."
The two public attacks on alleged US Embassy spying came in Izvestia. The first talked of a radio intercept device planted in a plastic treestump several years ago, and named two former embassy officers. The second repeated two-year-old information about antennae and boxes on the roof of the embassy, alleging they tried to intercept Soviet conversations from official cars and phones.
The timing of the articles suggested the worsening of detente is leading to a harsher tone on both sides.