THE Soviet Union has concluded that German unity is inevitable and does not want to be seen obstructing the process. But historical anxieties over the possibility of a large, economically powerful Germany dominating Europe underlie the active Soviet debate on reunification.
In an effort to protect their interests, the Soviets are trying to slow down what they see as West Germany's intentional haste in unifying with its eastern cousin.
This analysis, drawn from interviews with Western diplomats and Soviet political observers, is reinforced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's remarks in the Communist Party daily Pravda this week.
The Soviet president confirmed the position he outlined to the leaders of both East and West Germany in their recent visits here: first, that it is the right of the two Germanys to pursue unification; and second, that the security issues that unification raises must be settled in the European context.
In turn, this reflects the ``two-plus-four'' framework for negotiations on united Germany's role in Europe agreed to last week by all six nations - that is, the two Germanys plus the four victorious World War II Allies (the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union).
It is too soon to say what the Soviet Union's opening position will be when the two-plus-four talks open after East Germany's March 18 elections. But the fact that Mr. Gorbachev did not once mention the word ``neutrality'' in Wednesday's Pravda may be significant.
The Soviet and East German line had been that a united Germany must be neutral; the United States has insisted that Germany belong to NATO and has reacted positively to West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's idea of a united Germany within NATO, provided no Western troops be stationed in former East German territory.
``In the Pravda statements, Gorbachev left his options open,'' says a West German diplomat. By not mentioning neutrality, ``it means the stress [Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze put on it is a little moderated now.''
Ultimately, the recent remarks of Gorbachev and Mr. Shevardnadze on Germany can hardly be seen as diverging. Both seem to converge on the still-vague notion of a completely new ``European structure'' without military blocs.
After long resistance to the idea of German reunification (except under conditions unacceptable to the West), the Soviets are now saying they have supported the notion all along and that it can serve as the foundation for the ``common European home.''
Looking down the road over what the Soviets see as a multiyear process of German reunification, Gorbachev projected in his Pravda statements two stages of development for the new Europe.
In the first stage, it is ``inadmissible to disrupt the military-strategic balance of the two international organizations,'' NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
In the second stage, ``it follows from what has been said that the process of German unification is organically linked and must be synchronized with the general European process, with its core - the formation of a fundamentally new structure of European security which will replace the one based on blocs,'' he added.
For his part Shevardnadze, in an interview in the government daily Izvestia on Feb. 19, was asked if a neutral Germany might be even more susceptible to a growth of ``neo-fascism, revanchism, [and] militarism'' than if it belonged to NATO. He replied that the unification of Germany must not be resolved in the context of two military blocs, because their future is uncertain.
From the Soviets' perspective, one element of the ``new European structure'' appears to be a peace treaty with Germany. In Pravda, Gorbachev cited the lack of a treaty, adding that ``it is this agreement that can finally determine Germany's status in the European structure in terms of international law.''
Though Western diplomats are generally positive about the direction of Soviet policy on the German question, as formulated by Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, they wonder if the more-conservative foreign policy bureaucracy will provide advice on the details of the strategy that will slow the process down.
Lev Bezymensky, a German specialist at the liberal magazine New Times, says ``the influence of conservatives is not big on foreign policy.''
And in fact, the frequent cries that West Germany aims to ``engulf'' East Germany, or, to quote yesterday's Pravda, that West Germany has launched a blitzkrieg against the East, may serve as a useful safety valve for that segment of the Soviet public with a deep and abiding fear of Germany.