THESE are tough times for the Soviet military. Its prestige has been battered by the Afghan war. Its tanks are rumbling home from Eastern Europe as the Warsaw Pact disintegrates. Its influence in Moscow has been diminished by perestroika, while at the same time it pulls police duty in Lithuania and other restive Soviet republics. Now the generals may be trying to fight back, say military analysts in the United States. With President Gorbachev's programs drawing increasing criticism at home, senior military commanders are beginning to speak out on basic policy. Resurgent military clout might be the reason the Soviets have recently taken a harder line in arms control negotiations.
``There's no doubt that the Soviet military is under a great deal of stress,'' said Henry Rowan, US assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, at a recent meeting with reporters.
Chief of the Soviet general staff Mikhail Moiseyev has put off a mid-May visit to the United States indefinitely, saying he must help prepare for the May 30 Bush-Gorbachev summit. Though new to his job, General Moiseyev is said to play a much more active role in arms control policy than did his predecessor, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev.
``The high command seems more predisposed to be drawn into the political fray,'' says Robert Nurick, a RAND analyst of Soviet defense policy.
In the Brezhnev era, to be a member of the Soviet armed forces was to be part of arguably the most powerful and prestigious institution in the nation. The military had first call on scarce raw materials, and many Soviet weapons were the equal of those produced in the more technologically sophisticated West.
That status began to slip in the late 1970s as the economic weakness of the Soviet Union became apparent, according to US experts. When Gorbachev took over, the slide became a free fall.
Like a shrewd politician consolidating his power Gorbachev moved to take control of the military structure. By 1989, the military high command had been almost completely replaced. The new commanders were on average 10 years younger than their predecessors. Many had served in Afghanistan. According to a RAND Corporation study, they were distinguished not by enthusiasm for perestroika (economic restructuring) but by evident sensitivity to unrest in the ranks of the military itself.
To diminish the military's political clout, Gorbachev and his allies began to attack it in public. In one notable speech Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze criticized military decisionmaking and called the country's chemical weapons program something motivated by ``primitive and distorted'' notions.
The Kremlin also set policies that cut against the military grain, from unilateral force cuts in Europe, to the Afgan withdrawal, to the many Soviet concessions made in arms talks. While military commanders may have agreed with many of these moves, the speed and unpredictability of Gorbachev's policy was unsettling.
Though the military appears to share many of Gorbachev's broader foreign policy goals, ``senior military commanders have been very reluctant to pay the price'' in force reductions that Gorbachev wants, according to a RAND study.
And while Gorbachev has been attacking the military from without, it has been beset by troubles within. Low pay and long hours have always been the lot of the largely conscripted rank and file; now officers' lives are apparently worsening as well.
There is no longer enough officer housing to go around. Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov recently told a Soviet reporter there are 7,500 officers without apartments in Moscow alone. The decline in social status of the officer corps has been so rapid that they are now prime targets for crime and murder. Soviet military publications show that 59 officers were killed last year, according to Harriet Fast Scott, a Washington consultant on the Soviet military.
Ethnic tensions rippling through the country as a whole are if anything worse in the armed forces. While officers remain largely ethnic Russian and Slav, an increasing percentage of conscripts are from Central Asia and other far-flung parts of the country and speak Russian poorly, if at all.
The Soviet draft-age cohort is ``up to 40 percent Muslim,'' says Alexander Alexiev, a RAND specialist in Soviet nationalities.
The Soviet practice of sending young draftees far from their home for service has been a spark lighting the nationalist revolt in the Baltics and other separatist republics. Baltic draftees face fierce ethnic hazing, and perhaps worse - in 1986 an Estonian separatist group reported that 12 Estonian draftees were shot during a protest strike against their work cleaning up the Chernobyl nuclear plant. General Moiseyev has said that draft evasion last year was eight times the level of 1985.
Use of regular Army troops as a police force in Azerbaijan and a tool of intimidation in Lithuania has solidified the military's image as conservative and anti-separatist. The military appears ambivalent about its new internal role. In public statements many officers have seemed sensitive to the fact that internal deployments lower their status in the eyes of much of the population and exacerbate the military's own ethnic problems. At the same time, conservative older commanders see themselves as a bastion of the state and see that role as an opportunity.
``They don't like to do it, but they know this is the last leverage they have with the party,'' says RAND's Mr. Alexiev.