The Kremlin under Mikhail Gorbachev is finding it more and more difficult and expensive to hold on to gains already made in the third world. It is willing to keep on paying the price. It can point to some recent advances in the Arab world (Syria, Libya, Oman, United Arab Emirates). It fights on grimly in Afghanistan after six years of armed struggle. It claims strategic successes in Mongolia, Cuba, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique, while avoiding a direct clash of arms between Soviet and American forces.
But six major rebellions against pro-Soviet governments in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, and Cambodia have punched holes in the Soviet assertion that it is riding a tide of history running against the Western world.
Four sets of antigovernment forces -- in Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Nicaragua -- get aid from the United States to varying degrees, but US analysts see the mainspring in each being genuine local grievance against the central governments.
And the Soviets have suffered recent setbacks:
In strategic South Yemen, where whoever wins the current power struggle is expected to remain pro-Soviet but where Soviet self-confidence has been shaken and where its ability to control events has been shown to be overrated.
In North Korea, where despite all Soviet efforts to edge out Chinese influence, the government remains almost feudally totalitarian and separate from the Comecon trading bloc.
In Angola, where the presence of some 30,000 Cubans has been unable to rescue the failing economy or defeat the rebels.
Also, Soviet efforts to thaw relations with China have failed to win significant concessions from Peking, which is abandoning page after page from the Soviet textbook adapted from Marx. Peking has three main points of contention: Soviet troops along the Chinese border, Soviet presence in Afghanistan, and Soviet support for the government in Cambodia. Peking is also disturbed by the presence of SS-20 missiles in the Soviet Far East.
All these points are made by Western Soviet-watchers at the Harriman and Kennan Institutes for Advanced Soviet Studies, at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and at the London School of Economics.
Mark Katz, research associate at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, is struck by Soviet concern at prolonged guerrilla movements against pro-Soviet governments.
``When the US was in trouble in the '60s and '70s, Soviet analysis was quite sophisticated,'' Mr. Katz says. ``They argued that we [the US] did worst when a pro-Western government was faced with a communist uprising: as in Vietnam, Ethiopia, and El Salvador. They saw that when a second, noncommunist group existed, the Americans always backed the right-wing people in power, leaving the Soviets a good opportunity to win over the noncommunist opposition. But now that rebels are fighting pro-Soviet governments, this sophistication has vanished.''
The standard Soviet explanation is that the rebels are helped by the US and its allies, Katz says.
Both Katz and Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics note that the governments in all six countries launched offensives against rebels last year.
In Cambodia the offensive was the largest ever against the Khmer Rouge and others. In Afghanistan, the Soviets and their client Afghan forces began systematic campaigns in border areas. In Ethiopia, government troops captured the important town of Barentu in Eritrea and began talks with Khartoum on Sudanese noninter-ference in Eritrean and Tigr'ean rebel movements.
Contras in Nicaragua began meeting helicopter gunships for the first time. Soviet military aid to Angola rose (and South Africa counterattacked.)
Katz sees the two countries most at risk, from the Soviet perspective, as Angola and Mozambique. The economies of both are in virtual ruins. Angolan guerrilla leader, Jonas Savimbi, recently visited Washington where he received sympathy but no military aid for fear of triggering heavier Soviet response on one side and increased South African activity on the other.
Mozambique's ruler Samora Machel visited Washington last fall in a striking effort to angle for US aid.
In the Arab world, analysts believe that the Soviet scorecard is mixed. Although Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi is unpredictable, the Soviets keep sending him massive amounts of arms, including surface-to-air missiles to guard his airfields. Syria takes no dictation from Moscow, but keeps buying Soviet arms and listening to (though not necessarily taking) Soviet advice. Contacts with Saudi Arabia have increased. Diplomatic relations with Oman opened for the first time in September 1985 and with the United Arab Emirates two months later.
Yet, say Katz and Elizabeth Valkenier, resident scholar at the Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union at Columbia University, last month's events in South Yemen have shaken the Soviets.
Its gamble in allowing hard-line former President Abdel Fattah Ismail to return to the country last year ended in an outbreak of fighting between forces loyal to him and those belonging to President Ali Nasir Muhammad Hasani. Mr. Ismail was reportedly killed soon thereafter. Civil war continues to simmer despite peacemaking efforts by the Soviets, who have a naval base in Aden and about 1,000 personnel in the country.
Katz sees the Soviets losing more ground no matter what happens. If Muhammad regains power, Katz says, he will be angry at Moscow for letting Ismail back into the country. He will need Soviet support, but he will want to develop relations with moderate neighbors such as Oman and the UAE. If the more Marxist factions loyal to Ismail win, they will want to go back to fomenting rebellion among South Yemen's neighbors -- potentially damaging Moscow's new ties to them.
The Soviets pay highest priority to third-world states closest to them: Afghanistan, Iran, China, and Mongolia. They work hard to expand their influence in India, though some Western analysts say Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is somewhat less pro-Soviet than his mother, the late Indira Gandhi.
Moscow is trying to put in place local Communist Party structures in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, and Nicaragua. An effort to do the same in Grenada failed when the Reagan administration invaded the island in October 1983.
``The notion that Gorbachev is about to pull out of Afghanistan is unfounded,'' says Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. ``The country is too important to the Soviets. All they were saying at the Geneva summit was that they are determined to stop any reversal of pro-Soviet government there.'' Second of a three-part series. Tomorrow: Soviet recipe for keeping friends in power.