Without moving troops beyond Afghanistan or attacking other countries, the Soviet Union is joining the race for the energy resources of the Persian Gulf area.
Several leading Western scholars and defense analysts told a recent public policy seminar at the Brookings Institution here that a key speech by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev last Feb. 22 gave clear signals of the new direct Soviet interest in gas and oil supplies of the region.
"In effect," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Brookings guest scholar and close associate of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, "Soviet occupation of the oil fields is unlikely -- a red herring.
"But Brezhnev's speech affirmed that the USSR does have an interest in the region's resources and communications lines. He said all the regional powers, including the Soviet Union, should share in ensuring their security."
Essentially, said Dr. Sonnenfeldt and other Brookings panelists, Mr. Brezhnev is affirming that the Soviet Union has the same kind of "vital interest" in the region that President Carter affirmed in his Jan. 23 speech. Mr. Carter promised the US would defend the Gulf region and its oil reservoir with US military force if they were attacked from the outside.
The Soviet President, Dr. Sonnenfeldt said, is asking European allies of the United States "not to allow the US to militarize the problem." Instead, the Soviets are saying, "Let us be the main military power in the area and then we will all sit down and work out the future together."
Dr. Sonnenfeldt and other panelists urged that the US urgently improve the mobility of its own forces and persuade European allies and Japan to do more in defense of their own Indian Ocean oil supply lanes.
With the present 12,000-mile supply lines between the Gulf area and the US, and with US access to Indian Ocean bases not yet fully assured, it is doubtful that the US could repell the Soviets if they moved toward the Iranian or Gulf oil fields from either the USSR or Afghanistan, several of the panelists said.
Michael McGwire, a former British Royal Navy officer of working as a defense scholar in Canada who is an expert on the Soviet military, said worldwide Soviet naval movements showed the Soviets were ready to move against the Turkish straits and other Western-controlled maritime "choke points" in case of world war.
Mr. McGwire said the US had acted wisely in refusing to be drawn into military intervention in Iran over the hostage crisis. But vacillating US leadership had "perhaps largely squandered" opportunities he saw for the US to quickly demonstrate to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other regional powers its resolve to defend them after the Soviet move into Afghanistan, he said.
Mr. McGwire saw this invasion as "pinning down six Soviet divisions, which are therefore unavailable for use in Iran." Mr. McGwire said the direct Soviet military threat to the Gulf had declined since last Dec. 24 -- the day of massive airborne Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
Former US Ambassador Raymond Garthoff, an expert on Soviet involvement in the Mideast and Africa, and Brookings scholar William Quandt, former Mideast adviser to President Carter, agreed that the faltering of the US-Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace initiative has given the Soviets more leverage in the Mideast. Mr. Carter was attempting to give this initiative new impetus in Washington talks with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat (last week) and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin (this week).
Dr. Quandt said that with the collapse of the Shah's regime a Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rulers in the area see a new power balance. Iraq has acquired new political clout. It aspires to fill the defense vacuum left in the Gulf area by Iran and the role formerly filled by Egypt before Mr. Sadat became estranged from the other Arabs because of his peace treaty with Israel.
Iraq, Dr. Quandt added, has been moving away from ties with the Soviet Union. It has been promptly meeting its new financial aid obligations to Jordan, thus helping King Hussein to stay aloof from the Camp David efforts and improve his relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Dr. Quandt said Saudi leaders he saw in Saudi Arabia last month expect the USSR to become a net importer of oil by the 1990s. "The Saudis see pressures growing on everyone in the area, and they want to know who's really in charge in Washington," he reported. "There is no real concept of what the Carter doctrine [on US defense of the Gulf] really means."
The area's rulers, Dr. Quandt said, see an "unreliable US" -- unable to defend its interests or to prevail on Israel to modify its land and settlements policy or otherwise get results toward a Palestinian solution -- and an "aggressive USSR."