THE Soviet Union has waded hip-deep into the fast-moving waters of Mideast diplomacy. As Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze makes the rounds of five Middle East capitals in Moscow's first serious push in years for broad influence in the region, several achievements are already becoming apparent, say Egyptian and Western analysts here.
The visit has reestablished a Soviet presence in the Middle East, where Moscow has kept a low profile since being expelled from Egypt in 1972.
``It puts the Soviets back on the map in the Middle East,'' says a Western analyst in Cairo.
After meeting here yesterday with Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, Shevardnadze made the point that there could be no Middle East peace ``without the Soviet Union.''
Although he has apparently brought no new peace plan to the region, Shevardnadze has nudged the peace process forward by skillfully shoring up leading Arab moderates, including Egypt.
``He's strengthening an attitude change that has led the PLO and several Arab states to seek peace with Israel,'' notes an Egyptian official.
The visit has increased pressure on Washington to play a more active role in the peace process. It also compliments a peace offensive by Palestinians and the efforts of several European nations to convince Israel to negotiate directly with the Palestine Liberation Organization, a position the Soviets back.
Shevardnadze sought to persuade Mr. Arens on that point, and on holding an international peace conference. He said Soviet and Israeli officials would meet soon to discuss the issues further.
Shevardnadze's three-day visit here, which ends today, is the third stop-over on a tour that began last week in Syria and Jordan and ends in Iraq and Iran.
Observers here agree the biggest gains from the visit have been scored by Egypt, where Shevardnadze dallied a day longer than scheduled.
The choice of Cairo as a venue for Shevardnadze's meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israel's Arens, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, is taken as a sign that Moscow is encouraging Egypt to play a central role in bridging differences between Israel and the PLO.
Egypt also sees the visit as a long-overdue vindication of its policy of making peace with Israel while still seeking to play a major role in Arab affairs. In addition, it sends a message to Syria that its years-long policy of rejectionism, once backed by the Soviets themselves, is no longer relevant.
``The Soviets are trying to tell the Syrians, `You are on a dead-end road,''' says an Arab diplomat here.
The decision to welcome Arens to Cairo, meanwhile, is taken as a positive gesture toward Israel, and also as an attempt to test Israel's willingness to make concessions for peace.
Shevardnadze's Middle East tour is the first by a Soviet foreign minister in 15 years. Diplomats here explain the suddenness of the visit as an effort by Moscow to get into the Mideast diplomatic game just as Europe is seeking to carve out a major role of its own in the region and as several Middle East leaders, including Mr. Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, prepare to meet for the first time with US President George Bush.
Soviet leaders are believed here to understand that, without diplomatic relations with Israel, they cannot replace the US as honest broker in the region. But in an expected meeting with US Secretary of State James Baker III, Shevardnadze is likely to stress that warmer ties with Israel and Arab moderates qualify Moscow to become an equal partner in future Middle East peace moves. Following the constructive role played by Moscow in settling other regional disputes, Western diplomats concede that the Soviets could prove a benign presence in the Mideast.
In Damascus, Shevardnadze proposed giving the UN Security Council a major role in laying the groundwork for an international Middle East peace conference within six to nine months. Israel rejects such a conference, except as an umbrella for direct talks.
While Moscow's return to the Middle East is generally welcomed as the latest of several promising developments, analysts are keeping a worried eye on the diplomatic clock.
``If we get nothing two years down the line, it's likely to become a far uglier region,'' says the Western analyst.