Gone are the days of rampant Soviet adventurism in the third world's hot spots. But this development belies the intensity of Moscow's efforts to consolidate gains already made. When the Soviet Union sends military forces to distant places, it is for one of two intertwined reasons -- to enhance its regional influence, or to prepare more effectively for potential conflict with the United States. Its zest for engaging in such activity has fluctuated widely over the past quarter century.
Several developments over recent months point up current Soviet attitudes toward projecting power in the third world:
Negotiations for a solution in Afghanistan are going nowhere. An unrealistically long, four-year Soviet timetable for withdrawing its forces from that country has been linked to a halt in foreign assistance to the insurgency. Most experts say they believe that Moscow is unlikely to leave under any situation that does not ensure continued Soviet dominance.
A Soviet freighter in May delivered arms directly to the Nicaraguan port of Corinto, a change from the previous 18-month practice of offloading in Cuba for subsequent pickup by Nicaraguan vessels. A Soviet AN-30 reconnaissance plane also made at least four missions over Nicaragua, presumably in support of the Sandinista government's war against US-backed rebels.
Moscow's reaction to US attacks last April on Libya has been, on the whole, very low key.
The first two actions are indicative of an aggressive posture, while the third seems almost timid. But despite this apparent contradiction, analysts conclude several fairly clear patterns of Soviet force projection have emerged during the past year.
First, a surge in adventurist Soviet actions undertaken during the 1970s has definitely subsided. In 1970 and '82, substantial numbers of Soviet air defense personnel were deployed to Egypt and Syria respectively. Cuban troops with active Soviet support entered Angola in 1975 and Ethiopia in '77. And some 120,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in '79. But no substantial Soviet intervention has occurred since '82, despite several opportunities Moscow had to do so.
Second, Soviet aid to leftist or communist states which were ``won'' during the previous decade has increased markedly. This is in juxtaposition to the ``Reagan doctrine'' proclaiming US support to anticommunist insurgents in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua.
In Afghanistan, Soviet forces have ruthlessly attacked the civilian population from which the mujahideen draw support, subverted tribal leaders, and exacerbated natural divisions among the guerrilla organizations.
In Angola, a Soviet/Cuban-reinforced government offensive last fall badly hurt UNITA, the anticommunist guerrilla movement in that country. And out of $580 million in communist military aid delivered to Nicaragua since 1980, $240 million has come from the Soviet Union directly.
Third, the Soviets retain a traditional reticence to send their own combat forces anywhere not on their own frontiers. Afghanistan, of course, is a bordering state.
And fourth, Moscow remains exceedingly wary of engaging in third-world military activity that might lead to direct conflict with the US. Despite this, a robust intelligence, communications, and reconnaissance infrastructure directed against US military capabilities worldwide has been built.
Soviet capacities for military intervention in the third world have grown considerably in the past two decades. Approximately 24,000 military advisers, or four times the 1965 figure, are stationed in 30 countries. Naval aircraft are stationed in North Yemen, North Vietnam, and periodically are deployed to Cuba, Angola, Syria, and Libya. Naval communications facilities exist in Cuba, Angola, North Yemen, and Vietnam. And intelligence-collection sites have been established in Cuba, North Yemen, and Vietnam.
The Soviet Mediterranean squadron averages 40 to 50 ships. Soviet naval visits, sometimes supplementing a permanent presence, occur regularly at 12 locations in the Mediterranean. The Indian Ocean and South China Sea squadrons average 20 to 25 units each.
And in Vietnam, Moscow maintains the largest Soviet naval base outside the Warsaw Pact. Some 20 ships and six attack/cruise missile submarines are normally in the area of Cam Ranh Bay -- as well as 24 long-range reconnaissance or strike aircraft.
But despite this impressive growth, Soviet capabilities to project forces rapidly into distant conflicts remain distinctly inferior to those of the US.
The US has 13 aircraft carriers compared with three for the Soviets. Those three are capable of handling only vertical short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. Soviet amphibious tonnage is 24 percent that of the American. And Soviet long-range military air transport can deliver only half the US capacity.
Soviet economic woes place additional obstacles in the path of costly overseas adventures. The US Central Intelligence Agency estimates that Soviet growth in its gross national product has been only 2.5 percent annually during the past decade. And the current petroleum market malaise exacerbates this situation.
Most specialists believe current Soviet force-projection patterns will persist for some time: avoidance of new commitments; retrenchment in areas previously won; gradual growth in power-projection weapons, platforms, and foreign support infrastructure; and avoidance of situations risking direct conflict with the US.
The Soviet bear, in other words, is treading a firm but undeniably cautious course.
The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.