THE Soviets, to their credit, did not subject the young West German who, on a lark, flew his Cessna into Red Square Thursday evening to the same fate suffered by the passengers of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. The Soviets shot that plane down after it strayed into their airspace over Sakhalin Island in September 1983, and they insisted to the horrified world that they would do the same thing again if another such incident occurred.
But 19-year-old Matthias Rust of Hamburg, who brought his single-engine plane to land beside the Kremlin Wall like some sort of transcontinental butterfly touching down beside a group of picnickers, ``will be thanked,'' a Soviet press official has said, for making the Soviets aware of gaps in their air defenses.
Moreover, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser, has noted, ``The Soviets have done what the American high command and political leadership has not had the guts to do, namely, fire the top military when there is a significant setback.'' Mikhail S. Gorbachev has relieved his defense minister, Sergei L. Sokolov, and the commander of the Soviet air defense forces, Aleksandr I. Koldunov, of their duties.
Brzezinski's remarks, citing the loss of US marines in Beirut, the Moscow embassy scandal, and the confusion surrounding the recent Iraqi attack on the USS Stark, were understandably given big play by the Soviet news agency, Tass.
Actually, though, the incident provided Gorbachev with a clean opening to replace some of the old guard in the Soviet defense establishment with men more to his liking. Dmitri T. Yazov, a relative unknown with no independent political base, has been named the new defense minister. More firings and new appointments are expected.
Controlling the defense establishment, with its growing appetite for money which Gorbachev would like to spend elsewhere, is very important to him. The ``new'' Gorbachev-appointed military team is likely to be a much lower-key operation, with much less of a political voice. Ousting Sokolov and Koldunov enabled Gorbachev to appear decisive, to shield himself from criticism, and pursue an important item on his own agenda, all at once.
The episode highlights the value of civil relations among nations, and the dangers of trusting technology to work better than the people using it. Soviet authorities evidently saw the little blue-and-white plane cross into their airspace but couldn't decide how to respond. ``Star wars'' advocates, take note.
What lies ahead for Matthias Rust, who has been ``in custody'' since Thursday night, is not yet clear. Novosti chief Valentin M. Falin, a Gorbachev confidant, has said the young man will soon be released and allowed to return home without a trial. Other reports say that he may be tried and jailed.
Whatever superficial national embarrassment his caper has caused the Soviets, Rust should surely be freed at once.
And Gorbachev has benefited too much from the incident to delay freeing him.