THE warm images of the United States and the Soviet Union marching hand in hand to control aggression in the Gulf crisis have disappeared here in recent days. Instead, the pages of the Soviet press and the pronouncements of its officials are filled with warnings against military action. There are harsh suggestions, in language reminiscent of the past, that the US is pursuing less than noble goals in the Middle East.
Soviet policy is still unequivocal in its condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and its support for United Nations-sponsored economic sanctions to force Iraqi withdrawal. But the rapid buildup of US forces in Saudi Arabia, along with steps to impose a tight naval blockade against Iraq, is moving at a pace that rattles Moscow.
``The problem can only be solved by peaceful means,'' Communist Party Politburo member Gennady Yanayev told reporters Wednesday. The senior party official in charge of foreign policy said the Soviet Union would not approve if ``one aggression rectified another aggression,'' according to Tass news agency. In recent days, Soviet officials have stressed that all steps against Iraq be taken through the UN. Considerable room still exists for diplomacy and economic pressure to force Iraqi withdrawal before any use of force would be justified, they say.
``We do not support unilateral actions aimed at naval blockade, which separate countries are now trying to impose,'' Mr. Yanayev said, in a clear reference to the US stance. ``It seems to us that the economic sanctions, which were enforced by the UN Security Council, should be given a chance to work.''
Although they have not ruled out the possibility, suggested by the US, of a multinational naval force sailing under the UN flag, Soviet diplomats at the UN have cautioned against any ``haste in this matter,'' according to press reports here.
Moscow is also sensitive to charges that its military aid made Iraqi aggression possible. In an interview Wednesday with the government daily Izvestia, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Nikityuk, a senior military official, listed Soviet equipment supplied to Iraq. Denying Western press reports that Soviet military advisers were actively aiding Iraq, he said there were only 193 Soviet military personnel in Iraq helping to train and to maintain the equipment.
Soviet preference for working through the UN was clear from the beginning of the crisis. And a Soviet Foreign Ministry statement issued on Aug. 9, following the decision to send US troops to Saudi Arabia, warned against ``an escalation of confrontation.''
But this past weekend, the Soviet attitude toward the United States, as reflected particularly in newspaper commentary, began to take on a negative tone.
Melor Sturua, writing from Washington Saturday in the government daily Izvestia, criticized the US ``military-industrial complex'' for using the crisis to restore defense spending. He accused some US military leaders of using Egyptian and Saudi forces against Iraq, backed by US forces and equipment, in what he called ``the Arab variant of `Vietnamization.'''
The trade union daily Trud, in a Saturday commentary, posed the question ``Who's guilty?'' The Iraqis first of all, they answered. And the Soviet Union ``is not sinless'' for having sold them the weapons. But the US is also at fault, Trud suggested, for having set a ``bad example'' with its invasion of Panama.
By far the most striking reflection of the shift in mood came Tuesday in an Izvestia column by Stanislav Kondrashov, a leading foreign affairs commentator. Only last week, he had written a trend-setting article in that liberal daily, entitled ``Together against the aggressor,'' which praised the readiness of the two superpowers to act together.
This time Mr. Kondrashov asked: ``Together against the aggressor - and what after that?'' The Soviet policy of acting only through the UN has not been supported by Washington, he argues. ``The Americans used the auspices of the UN Security Council to introduce sanctions,'' he says, but when it comes to their own actions, the US is ``not tied by the UN mandate.''
Kondrashov is still harshly critical of Iraq, and of the Soviet Union for having supplied it with arms in the past. But he also questions US motives.
``Washington thinks ... as much about how to punish the aggressor as about preserving and strengthening its influence in the Middle East,'' he says accusingly. ``America wants to dominate in the region, where there is a lot of oil and where there are Israeli interests which are more important for it than even the Saudi interests.''
But the Middle East is also a region, he reminds his readers, ``which lies strategically close to the Soviet Union.''