Perhaps the best way to visualize what is going on in the world right now is to think of Mikhail Gorbachev sitting down in the middle of a great geopolitical war room in Moscow and beginning to play the biggest game of his career. He made his first move on May 15, when he began pulling his troops out of Afghanistan. The first units to leave crossed back into Soviet territory on Wednesday.
This opening move in the game supposedly cleared the way for the arrival of Ronald Reagan in Moscow on May 29. That in turn was for Mr. Gorbachev only a stage setting, a preliminary to the crucial and climactic event in the Gorbachev game - an extraordinary general conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to open in Moscow on June 28.
If all goes according to plan, that conference will both confirm Mr. Gorbachev's authority so change party rules that he will be able to push ahead with his enormous effort to refashion the whole Soviet system. It will amount to a constitutional convention.
But this past week saw only the beginning of the game. While the Soviet garrison of Jalalabad was moving from the south side of the great Hindu Kush mountain range to its homeland on the north side, Moscow was boiling with backstage maneuvering. There was talk of a special Central Committee meeting at which Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev's leading party opponent, would be pushed into the ceremonial role of president.
At this writing, this move had been thwarted in an agreement to leave the leadership unchanged until the opening of the party conference.
The main action was apparently in regional and local party meetings, where conference delegates are being chosen. Gorbachev was urging the selection of delegates who favor his reforms from outside the privileged bureaucracy. But preliminary reports indicate local bureaucrats were excluding staunch supporters of reform.
The political situation in Moscow was apparently so fluid over the past week that there is even some possibility that Gorbachev may not last in office beyond the conference.
The resistance is powerful, apparently powerful enough to prevent Mr. Ligachev's banishment to the honorific of president, and to prevent the loading of the great conference with a pro-Gorbachev majority.
There are about 300 members of the Central Committee. The great conference will have some 5,000 members. The Gorbachev plan is to have it amend the rules to permit secret balloting for Central Committee.
The summit has its own meaning. It expresses a growing reconciliation between Moscow and Washington. The second cold war has given way to a second ``d'etente.'' It is of public relations value to both players.
Mr. Reagan gets to play his role as a world figure with the pink walls of the Kremlin for a backdrop. Mr. Gorbachev presumably strengthens his prestige with the rank and file of the party by having brought Mr. Reagan to Moscow and persuaded Mr. Reagan to speak more kindly than had previously been his wont about the Soviet Union.
The arms-control agreement likely to be finalized at this summit also will help Gorbachev's drive to reduce military spending in favor of the domestic economy.
To the world at large, the summit means that the risk of a nuclear war is downgraded. But to the figures in Moscow, the drama of the summit is a move in the great game Mr. Gorbachev is playing to consolidate his grip on his own party and thus be able to use it as a weapon against the entrenched bureaucracy resisting his reforms.
Obviously, Mr. Gorbachev planned this game long ago. It required the summit. To get the summit he had first to get his troops out of Afghanistan. In effect, the troop withdrawal is his entrance fee to the community of nations.
The Russia of the Czars was part of the international world community. The 1917 Revolution put that relationship on hold. It revived during World War II. But Joseph Stalin elected after the war to isolate his country from the outside community.
Certainly for the moment, we are at the end of that period of Soviet isolation. But we are also at an uncertain moment in the personal story of a man named Mikhail Gorbachev. If he can consolidate his political power at home, the chances are that the lands he rules from Moscow will resume a normal relationship with the civilized world.
But that depends not on what will happen at the summit in Moscow, which is largely ceremonial and symbolic, but on what comes at the end of June when we find out whether Mr. Gorbachev or Mr. Ligachev has been more successful in rigging the lists of those who will gather at the great conference.
The game opened on May 15. It will last through the entire month of June. We will not know until then whether the Stalin era of Soviet isolation is finally over.