For now, the last-minute Soviet agreement to go ahead with the Helsinki review conference in Madrid vindicates the theory that Moscow still sees some incentive for detente.
Moscow finally acquiesced when presented with a virtual ultimatum by the neutral and nonaligned states that they would walk out of the 35-nation conference unless the Soviet Union accepted an agenda compromise that would give the West at least five weeks to attack the Soviet human rights record.
The alternative theory of some Western diplomats was that the Soviet union had written off detente altogether. During the past 10 weeks of procedural talks, the Soviet Union adamantly rejected not only the hard-won agenda compromise of the last review of the 1975 Helsinki agreement in Belgrade two years ago, but also every other Western and neutral proposal.
More specifically (and ominously), one version held that the Soviet Union was ready to invade Poland to restore communist orthodoxy there and did not want all of Europe, the United States, and Canada assembled to scold it when it did so.
Even in the last tense week, when the conference was close to collapse, it wasn't clear if Soviet stonewalling was final or simply a ploy to reduce the time for human-rights discussion to a minimum. It was only when the Soviet delegation referred to Moscow for instructions Nov. 14, after all the non-Soviet-bloc nations had approved the ultimate compromise, that Moscow's basic decision to continue the Helsinki dialogue became clear.
These vindicated proponents of the first theory now analyze Moscow's dwindling but still existing incentives to continue the East-West Helsinki dialogue in this way:
1. Detente is a stated Soviet policy associated personally with President Leonid Brezhnev. An abandonment of the "CSCE [Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe] process" begun in Helsinki five years ago would be a formal admission of the bankruptcy of this policy. It would question the infallibility and prestige of the Soviet Union and Mr. Brezhnev himself -- and would be especially painful since the original CSCE conference was a Soviet idea.
2. Moscow does not want to jeopardize the crucial technological imports from the West that began to flow with the 1970s detente. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a year ago led to some construction of this trade, especially from American companies. A return to cold-war confrontation by Moscow might freeze technological imports altogether.
3. The popular Polish revolt against Soviet control, which has so far been confined to Poland, might spread to other Soviet client states in Eastern Europe if it appeared that detente's safety valve of increased Eastern European-Western contact were again to be closed off. The Eastern European governments are understood to have been importuning Moscow particularly not to break off the Helsinki dialogue.
4. The Soviet Union, which dislikes President-elect Reagan's hard-line views -- but has generally worked better with Republican than with Democratic administrations -- does not at this stage want to jeopardize the possibility of a businesslike relationship with Mr. Reagan.
Notably absent from most Western Analysis of Moscow's remaining incentives or detente is any hope of creating a peace-loving image to counter the negative impact of their invasion of Afghanistan -- or hope of lulling Western Europe into not deploying new NATO nuclear weapons through some grand disarmament conference.
Given the Soviet tactic of putting pressure on the Polish free trade unions by the implicit threat of a Soviet last-resort invasion of Poland, however, Soviet disarmament proposals are not expected to convince many Western Europeans of Moscow's peace-loving nature.
Those Western diplomats who had expected Moscow to scuttle the Madrid conference viewed all of these advantages in a continued East-West CSCE dialogue as too weak to offset the disadvantages to Moscow. They argued that the Soviet Union perceives a security threat to its control over all of Eastern Europe in the present Polish insubordination and that restoring disciplne in Poland takes precedence over the fading attraction of any nebulous atmosphere of detente.