The Kremlin, with its vague statement that "some" of its armed units are bing withdrawn from Afghanistan, has made a carefully timed propaganda move with several major diplomatic aims.
But it is also running large risks -- and Western sources here simply do not believe the announcement signals any basic changes in the Soviet need to use troops to prop up the regime of Babrak Karmal in Kabul.
Soviet sources told this newspaper privately that Moscow had made its move without advance negotiations with the West and it was up to the West to respond. But, the sources stressed, Afghan forces were not being "abandoned." They would not be left without support if they needed it. This seemed to indicate the pullout was quickly reversible if necessary.
The sources also appeared to hint at some internal Soviet opposition to the move, saying the situation was "touchy" and that "it can always be argued that whatever we do won't please the State Department."
The Soviets had made the move to "back up what has been said before. We don't want to occupy Afghanistan." Sources urged Westerners not to believe rebel accounts of extensive fighting between Soviet troops and Afghan rebels and insisted Afghan troops were bearing the brunt of the fighting. The Afghan troops "know they have Soviet support."
The brief statement said, "Some Army units whose stay in Afghanistan is not necessary at present are being withdrawn these days to the territory of the USSR on agreement with the Afghan government."
It gave no idea of how many troops were being pulled back, or where on Soviet territory they would be stationed. It left open the possibilities that only heavy armor unsuited to Afghan valleys was involved, that it would be replaced by more mobile units, and that the withdrawn units would stay close to Afghan borders.
Diplomatic sources here are intrigued mostly at the timing of the announcement.It came on the eve of the Venice summit of United States and allied leaders; just before the visit here of the first Western leader since the invasion of Afghanistan (Helmut Schmidt of West Germany June 30); less than a month before the Moscow Olympics are to open July 19; and just as Pakistan, Iran , and Afghan rebels were criticizing Moscow at a meeting in Switzerland.
So the announcement is seen here as aimed at:
* Trying to divide still further the US and its European allies. Already Washington has urged Paris and Bonn to take a tougher line against Moscow over Afghanistan. Despite its vagueness, the new announcement might encourage Western Europe to press harder for independent talks with the Soviets. Chancellor Schmidt has suggested a three-year freeze on NATO and Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles -- a concept Washington rejects but the Soviets could exploit.
* Trying to encourage more nations to boost Soviet prestige by agreeing to attend the Olympic Games here next month. If the Kremlin had made its move before the May 24 deadline for replying to invitations to Moscow, it might have been seen as too blatant an effort to undermine the boycott. Now, with the deadline no longer in force, Moscow hopes more athletes might come.
* Trying to impress the Islamic world in two ways: to weaken Muslim opposition to Soviet troops invading a Muslim country, and to encourage Iran and Pakistan to start serious talks on the May 14 proposals from Kabul. The US has rejected those proposals as "cosmetic."
Western diplomats here had long expected a Soviet pullback move. Sources say the International Olympic Committee has been imploring Soviet officials for some gesture to break the boycott movement.
Yet diplomats point out Moscow cannot allow Babrak Karmal to fall, which he would do once troops were removed.
The Soviet statement is risky. It could signal to Eastern Europe, Vietnam, and Cuba that the mighty Soviet Army is in real trouble, that it is weak and bogged down. Hence the wording about units "whose stay . . . is not neccessary at present. . . ."
The May 14 proposals from Kabul, written in Moscow called for Iran and Pakistan to recognize Babrak Karmal and to agree to stop all rebel incursions. The US would have to join the guarantee.
Only then could a date be discussed for the beginning of a Soviet withdrawal.
Since then Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko has insisted publicly that any effort to change the "realities" in Kabul (the pro-Soviet government) were "pointless." The US says it cannot talk in face of such huge preconditions.
Meanwhile Moscow has criticized the Switzerland meeting of Afghan rebels and Iran and Pakistan sitting on the "Committee on Afghanistan" set up by the Islamic Conference in Islamabad.
It drew no distinction between the sharper criticism of Moscow by the rebels and the milder Iran-Pakistani statement. It repeated its standard view that the real issue was US-backed incursions into Afghanistan.
And it chastised once again Iranian Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh for talking about Iranian aid to the rebels. The Soviet news agency Tass suggested the committee was manipulated by "imperialists" and also criticized the secretary-general of the Islamic Conference. Neither move will increase Soviet standing in the islamic world.