MIKHAIL GORBACHEV'S vacation is over - in more ways than one. The Soviet leader returned to Moscow last week to confront the threat of war in the Gulf and a battle at home to keep the Soviet Union intact. Mr. Gorbachev signaled his intention to give a more decisive edge to Soviet policy in the Gulf by backing the United Nations Security Council resolution allowing force to enforce sanctions against Iraq. Soviet officials are trying to allay fears in the West that the Soviet Union is relaxing its opposition to Iraqi aggression.
Gorbachev conveyed his tough-mindedness in his message Friday to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in effect warning him of the Soviet intention to join the US in the UN action. But the Soviets also insist that the resolution does not give the US a free hand to confront Iraq under UN colors.
``All the parties concerned need today the utmost responsibility and supreme political wisdom,'' Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said of the UN decision. ``The situation is overheated already, and the aggravation of the confrontation can lead to an explosion.''
Mr. Shevardnadze stressed the Security Council's ``control over actions to implement sanctions,'' and the coordinating role of the Military Staff Committee of the Council. The Soviets had originally pushed for the Security Council to play this role, part of a consistent Soviet policy during this crisis to emphasize the need to act through the UN and by nonmilitary means.
The Soviet leadership took the occasion of a visit by French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas this weekend to stress these themes. Gorbachev met with Mr. Dumas and, according to an official Tass news agency report, ``expressed similar ideas'' about acting ``within the UN framework'' to ``prevent the expansion of the conflict.''
There is no indication yet that the Soviets will deploy their naval vessels already in the area as part of the UN-sponsored blockade effort. ``I doubt the Soviet Union would deploy forces against Iraq side by side with the US,'' comments Vladik Zubok, a specialist on US-Soviet relations at the USA-Canada Institute here.
Over the next few days the Soviets may, however, remove their remaining military advisers from Iraq, following the evacuation of Soviet women and children there, some analysts say. The evacuation of 950 Soviet citizens begins today and is scheduled to conclude Friday. About 8,000 Soviets are in Iraq.
Gorbachev's latitude for action is also limited by domestic considerations. The Iraq conflict is a distant second in the news here to troubles at home, including growing tension between Moscow and the republics. Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the Russian Republic, is leading the challenge to Gorbachev's vision of a stronger union.
For this reason, as well as others, Moscow emphasizes the need for a peaceful solution in the Gulf. The Soviets are engaging in active diplomacy, hinting that they are seeking a mediating role. Last week, a senior Iraqi envoy came to Moscow at the same time as a top Saudi official. Gorbachev spoke on the phone Saturday with the Turkish president and today the Kuwaiti foreign minister is expected to visit Moscow.
Both the French and the Soviets stress the need to maintain links to the Arab world, including with Iraq, during this conflict. The Soviets and the French have been careful, in their own ways, not to appear as part of a superpower condominium imposing its will in the region. Both countries share the role of having been Iraq's major weapons suppliers.
The duality of Soviet policy - its new de facto axis with the West and its continuing links to third-world allies, such as in the Arab world - continues to yield ambiguities in Soviet actions. Unlike the West, the Soviets have completely evacuated their embassy in Kuwait, although Soviet Foreign Ministry officials insist that the embassy is still legally open and that they have not recognized Iraqi annexation of Kuwait.
The status of the approximately 8,000 Soviet citizens in Iraq, including military trainers, is also distinct from the treatment of Westerners who have been taken hostage. Soviet foreign affairs commentator Stanislav Kondrashov, writing in the government daily Izvestia, explained this as an effort by Iraq to drive a wedge between Moscow and the West.
The influential commentator warned against letting Iraq succeed in this game. ``Retreat from its stated public positions and a lessening of resistance to the aggressor should not be the price of the liberation of Soviet people [from Iraq],'' he wrote.
The Soviet military's role in Iraq is also the subject of debate, within as well as outside the country. The Soviet Defense Ministry insists that the nearly 200 military experts in Iraq are merely trainers, not involved in military planning, and cannot leave until they fulfill their contracts. They are part of a long history of Soviet military assistance to Iraq, including supply of tanks, jet fighters, missiles, and other hardware.
The wavering of the Soviet position in the past two weeks is because ``the Foreign Ministry is beleaguered by the Soviet military,'' says Mr. Zubok. The Soviet military ``doesn't want to burn all its bridges in Iraq.... They cannot digest the idea that the Americans are increasing their strength in the Persian Gulf and [the Soviets] should pull out.''
Other Soviet analysts suggest other reasons for reluctance totally to remove the Soviet presence. One is the huge unpaid debt - estimated close to $6 billion - the Iraqis owe Moscow for military equipment. The Soviet link is also its ``only instrument of influencing the Iraqi internal situation,'' says Andrei Fadin, political editor of the independent weekly Commersant.
The removal of the advisers before evacuation of the families ``would be an open challenge'' to the Iraqis, Mr. Fadin adds. ``It would be madness.''