There are two alternative theories in the West about the Soviet-East German quarrel. The first - widely believed until July 27 - is that East Berlin and Moscow are carrot and stick, respectively, to lure/coerce West Germany away from staunch support of NATO. In this analysis the Soviet-East German dispute is essentially a sham.
The second - which seems to be developing into the consensus view in West Germany - is that Moscow is acting not out of design but out of sheer frustration. In this interpretation the Soviet-East German dispute is very real indeed.
Up until July 27 either theory could have been argued from the evidence, but the edge probably went to the first one. Since then the second seems more plausible, at least to the West Germans.
July 27 was the day the Soviet-East German spat went public with an attack on West Germany in Pravda that was actually an ill-disguised criticism of East Berlin for consorting with Bonn.
The argument for Soviet advantages in East Berlin's wooing of Bonn runs something like this:
In the East-West German mini-detente that persists despite superpower confrontation, East Berlin has gained a lot and given away almost nothing. It periodically gets money from Bonn, like the recent $330 million credit and ransoms to free political prisoners and even to get legal emigrants from East to West Germany.
In addition, East Germany gets all the economic advantages of being a virtual member of the European Community, since Bonn insists on treating East Germany as its domestic territory within the EC. Such an arrangement pacifies East German citizens by giving them the highest standard of living in the Soviet bloc. This in turn strengthens and legitimizes East German leader Erich Honecker.
In addition, it has benefits for Moscow: It stabilizes Socialist Unity (Communist) Party rule in East Germany and bolsters the East German economy, making this one client state Moscow doesn't have to bail out.
Moreover, the Soviet Union benefits from the quality of East German commercial manufacture and technology, the highest in the bloc, as well as from the technology East German spies are able to steal in West Germany.
The cost of all this is remarkably low. To be sure, East Berlin has let close to 30,000 East Germans emigrate to West Germany this year - and reaped the financial rewards. It has lowered the compulsory currency exchange for West German pensioners visiting East Germany to 15 marks (some $6) a day, but still extracts 25 marks from almost all others. Those visits still cost West Germans more than before East Berlin raised the obligatory exchange back in the heyday of Solidarity.
East Germany is also dismantling the automatic shooting devices on the mined, barbed-wire border between East and West Germany.
Besides, East Germany has been so subservient to Moscow ever since Russian tanks quashed the East Berlin workers' uprising in 1953 that Honecker would never do anything without the Kremlin's approval.
Conclusion: The West Germans are getting snookered and Moscow is laughing up its sleeve.
The alternative theory runs like this:
The first analysis might have accounted for developments up to July 27, but it raises more questions than it answers if it is assumed to apply since then. This analysis can't begin to explain either what concrete goals Moscow could hope to achieve in the West by a sham dispute with East Berlin - or why to achieve them the Kremlin should be willing to risk uniting most of Eastern Europe against it.
Not even the most optimistic Russian could hope any longer to prevent NATO intermediate-range missiles from being stationed in West Germany. The deployments began without polarizing the country.
A conservative government is in power that is committed to completing the stationing. Moscow's media characterizations of West Germans as ''potential builders of new death camps'' and ''absolutely stupid, blindly rabid, animalistic, bloodthirsty'' neo-Nazis are so outlandish they unite all West Germans except for the far left against Moscow.
Moreover, if the Soviet motivation now is the slim hope of uncoupling Bonn from the Western alliance, the Kremlin is showing uncharacteristic recklessness in seeking to do so by means of staging a fight with its three-decade model ally in East Berlin. In the past the Kremlin has never gone public with bloc quarrels if it could possibly avoid it.
The degree to which something seems to have gone wrong - and the firm and carefully prepared East German rebuttal of the Soviet charges - have triggered surprise and some new appraisals in Bonn.
What seems to be shaping up as the consensus here is an analysis based essentially on Soviet frustration over West Germany and worry about East Germany.
In this interpretation the Kremlin is bitter because its peace campaign against Western missiles has backfired in Eastern Europe. It scared the Hungarians and East Germans in particular into undermining Soviet efforts to return to cold war confrontation. And it spurred even the Bulgarians, Poles, and Czechs into expressing discreet misgivings.
Moreover, in this drama Erich Honecker is turning into the spokesman for East European aspirations for peace - the man Moscow would least like to see in this role.
This role does strengthen Honecker internally, the analysis continues, but it does so - for the first time in East Germany history - by associating him with the opening up of his own society. The opening is slow, but it is beginning to develop a momentum of its own.
Conclusion: Moscow is worried. And this is a time for the West not to taunt that concern, but to trust its own democratic strengths.