I don't think the average reader realizes how seriously observers here take the non-military problems of the Soviet Union. Russia has shown formidable strength in building up a military machine. Some believe that the USSR is presently stronger than the USA; that is why Ronald Reagan is putting so much money into the military side. But outside the military, the Russian story is different.
Lester Brown, director of Worldwatch Institute, a dispassionate research organization, noted the other day that Russia has a declining life expectancy. If true, and it seems to be commonly accepted, it is a shocking fact. Confrontations between the Soviets and the West are emotional and ideological and it is hard to gauge the facts. Yet the situation seems to be that the Soviets face grave domestic problems amounting to a crisis.
There is a continuing slow down of economic growth that threatens the standard of living. The Soviets can't feed themselves and import food. One of the ironies of the day is that the United States continues to sell food to the Russians and the Russians buy despite their hostility. The Russians, too, seem to be running short of cash and are finding it difficult to raise money abroad.
Why is the vast empire experiencing these difficulties? Western economists seem pretty well agreed on the answer. Centralized management is a poor way to run a country. It is too rigid; too doctrinaire. The incentives are not adequately harnessed to the economy. There is too much ideology and not enough production.
It has all been said before but the inadequacies seem to be growing. And if the government increases incentives there may be a loss of control; if it reduces discipline there may be insubordination; if it diminishes subsidies to the hungry there might be violence.
What has happened in Poland is a shadow over Russia itself. The Polish structure collapsed when the workers demanded democracy and more food. Keeping Poland going now will impose additional burdens for a while. Russia's ethnic minorities are becoming restive. The cost to Moscow of keeping up its alliance with Cuba and of supporting its client states is increasingly burdensome.
That's the picture as seen here within the Reagan administration. Nobody can be sure how the Politburo will meet its succession problem; its leaders are getting older; it's a gerontocracy. Russia has had two crises of succession: Lenin and Stalin. Today there may be a further struggle: a reformist party on one side that wants to come to terms with modern economics and the West; and the die-hards, the hard-liners, who will put their faith in arms and the threat of nuclear power.
In Washington there is a hard and soft line, too. President Reagan tends to the first. With congressional approval, he instituted the arms buildup, the biggest in history. He delayed resuming arms talks almost a year; now soon, however, Secretary of State Haig meets Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko and they may schedule wider talks.
There is a softer line, too, in the capital. Don't give up hope of restoring detente, it says. Perhaps George F. Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow, is the most articulate exponent: ''We run the danger -- and it is a serious one -- '' he says, ''of driving the Soviet leadership to desperation by pressing it mercilessly against a closed door.''