CONTRARY to some Western assessments, the jailing of American reporter Nicholas Daniloff on espionage charges is remarkably consistent with the policy of the Gorbachev regime. Mikhail Gorbachev's smile and his public relations expertise should not be confused with weakness in defending what the Kremlin sees as its own interests.
In this case, the framing of Mr. Daniloff, and the threat that he will be convicted of espionage, is a bald-faced attempt to coerce the United States into releasing a Soviet citizen being held in New York on spy charges.
Though it is tempting to think that Daniloff's arrest by the KGB (the Soviet secret police) might have been undertaken without Mr. Gorbachev's approval, this seems most unlikely.
The men and women of the KGB are Gorbachev's patrons. His mentor, the man who made it possible for him to assume supreme power in the Soviet Union, was Yuri Andropov, for 15 years the ruthless head of the KGB. Today, under Gorbachev, the police have a higher profile than ever before in Soviet history; three members of the 12-man Politburo have served in the security forces.
There is plenty of evidence that Gorbachev is as hard nosed as any of his recent predecessors. This point is often forgotten in the West amid talk of glasnost (the Soviet leader's policy of domestic ``openness''), but it is borne out by the intensification of the war in Afghanistan, the stepped-up persecution of Soviet Jews, and last year's tit-for-tat expulsion of Britons after 31 Soviets were sent home from London, accused of espionage.
Gorbachev has been striving to banish the languor that afflicted Soviet society under past ailing leaders. He is practicing and preaching assertiveness and initiative. This is a man who wants results, who wants Moscow to be a skillful manipulator of events. If this can be done with public relations flair, so much the better, but this is not the primary concern.
The US resolve to continue pursuing suspected Soviet spies; the Aug. 22 arrest on spy charges of Gennady Zakharov, a Soviet employee at the United Nations; and the United States demand that Moscow send home 105 people from its UN staff by the spring of 1988 all represent a threat to Kremlin interests. They suggest the sort of loss of control that Gorbachev has been moving to preempt elsewhere.
The jailing of Daniloff, in retaliation for that of Mr. Zakharov, shows that the Kremlin puts a high price on its ability to conduct espionage.
The Soviet Union's spies are especially valuable now, at a time when the country's economy is declining, its military might is challenged by President Reagan's planned Strategic Defense Initiative, and its access to high technology is being limited.
But why press such a hard line and risk sabotaging a US-Soviet summit?
It is difficult to know. But Zakharov has no diplomatic immunity. What might he reveal under interrogation? Will he be convicted of espionage? Will he defect to the United States? The Soviet Union must be asking these questions.
The Daniloff case shows the extraordinary lengths Moscow is prepared to go to in order support its spies and to try to intimidate their host governments.
It was no accident that a journalist was chosen as the pawn in this Soviet political game. Daniloff was one of the most capable reporters in Moscow. His arrest was a double stroke by the Soviet government.
In addition to letting the world know that Moscow will retaliate when foreign countries press spy charges against its citizens, Daniloff's jailing -- the first of a journalist since the Stalin era -- has stepped up Gorbachev's offensive against conscientious Western reporters.
It is clear now that glasnost is something for the Soviet press, and not foreign journalists.
The arrest of Daniloff once again bears out the assessment of Gorbachev by former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko: ``Comrades, this man has a nice smile, but he's got iron teeth.''
Richard Wentworth is member of the Monitor's international news editing staff.