THE Helsinki summit was a major breakthrough for Mikhail Gorbachev. On the one hand, President Bush was so convinced of Soviet helpfulness in the Iraqi crisis that he is going to encourage the flow of American technology and assistance to Moscow's beleaguered economy. Gorbachev badly needed that.
On the other hand, Mr. Bush at Helsinki opened the door to a Soviet role in the Middle East. This is something that has been consistently opposed by American administrations on grounds that the Soviets are meddlesome and not a constructive influence.
Mr. Bush thinks the Soviets have turned over a new leaf and have proved by standing firmly with the US on Iraq that they are now constructive. The US is apparently ready to see the Soviets participate in some new kind of security structure in the Middle East - a move that once would have been unthinkable.
That George Bush would trust the Soviets with a hand on the spigots that control the flow of oil from the Middle East to the industrialized world shows how far the new US-Soviet relationship has come since the initial Bush-Gorbachev summit in Malta.
Should there be a dramatic reversal of Soviet mood or policy, it would be a move the US would sorely regret.
But at Helsinki there was no rumbling of dissent between the two nuclear superpowers. The two presidents, their spokesmen, and the communique, referred time after time to their ``united'' stand, to their ``common'' interests, to their ``developing mutual understanding.''
Mr. Gorbachev said the number of Soviet contract experts in Iraq had been run down from 196 at the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to 150 today, and would decline further. He said the Soviets had privately told Saddam Hussein to honor the UN's demand for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
At his joint Helsinki press conference with Mr. Bush, Mr. Gorbachev urged Saddam Hussein to ``display sobriety,'' and to respond to the UN's ``demands.'' If Hussein was watching CNN in Baghdad, as he is sometimes wont to do, it could not have been a cheering spectacle. His irresponsible escapade has brought the US and Soviet Union together on a major foreign policy issue for the first time since World War II.
And so with the Soviet Union shorn of its East European empire, with its economy impoverished by years of Marxist mismanagement, Moscow in its weakness has achieved a stature it never knew at the peak of its strength.
For years the Soviets had an international inferiority complex, a yearning to be treated as a great power, an ambition which they sought to achieve through the use of terror, military power, and cold war abrasiveness.
Acceptance - by George Bush at least - has finally come through the Soviets' endorsement of reason and the rule of international law.
If the Soviets continue on this course of amity and cooperation, some good will have emerged even from so dangerous a crisis as that which confronts us in the Middle East.
For Saddam Hussein will have given warp and woof to the delicate alliance that Bush and Gorbachev began building in Malta, and strengthened at their second summit meeting in Washington and Camp David.
The end of the cold war made the world safer from confrontation between the superpowers. But the erosion of superpower influence also encouraged the emergence of regional tyrants like Saddam Hussein. Unified superpower condemnation of such tyrants, as we have just seen at Helsinki, is something that could hardly have taken place when Mr. Gorbachev's militant predecessors were in power in Moscow.
Even out of Saddam Hussein's crucible of evil, some good may come.