CAN human ingenuity prevent another round of Soviet-Western confrontation? If historical patterns recur, Moscow will soon lurch back toward a hard line at home and abroad. Soviet policy since 1917 has alternated between a ``left'' and ``right'' syndrome, usually lasting between four and six years. A right or moderate syndrome began in 1985 and - if the past is future - has about run its course. What factors have produced these cycles of hard and moderate inflections in Soviet policy? Ideological zeal and desperation impelled the ``War Communism'' of 1917-21. Exhaustion triggered the ``New Economic Policy'' from 1921-27. Stalin's ascendancy and drive to industrialize pushed Soviet policies left from 1928 through 1933, when Hitler led Moscow to reverse gears and seek collective security at the League.
Zigs and zags continued: Attempted condominium with Hitler in 1939; grand alliance with the West, 1941-46; intense cold war, 1947-53; Khrushchev's ``peaceful coexistence,'' 1954-58; frontal pressures on Berlin and Cuba, 1958-62; the ``Spirit of Moscow'' and Glassboro, 1963-67; the Czech crackdown and tensions in Europe, 1968-71; the Nixon-Brezhnev d'etente of the early 1970s, followed by a forward strategy in the third world, late 1970s-early 1980s.
The underlying problem has been the Kremlin's devotion to Lenin's orientation of kto kovo? - ``Who will overcome whom?'' Intent on destroying their foes, the Bolsheviks gave and expected no quarter. This orientation has softened since Stalin, and has been officially replaced under Gorbachev by the view that ``all-human'' principles are more important than class, nationality, race, or religion. But Soviet leaders have always distrusted all rivals and even their own people.
Cooperation between communist regimes and Western democracies has been tenuous, owing to different world views, habits, and perceived interests. Western governments have also acted so as to confirm the darkest suspicions of communist leaders.
Today, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, backed up by their counterparts in Western Europe and Japan, seem to want continued peace, cooperation, and trade. But they must deal with Kremlin interests much more explosive than many that upset previous periods of d'etente.
Now the communist regime and the core Soviet empire are at stake. Gorbachev has hoped to restructure the Soviet economy - a sort of Soviet ``New Deal'' - while preserving communist rule and a centralized empire. But halfway measures have proven ineffective while vested interests and popular fears resist a switch-over to market economics.
Gorbachev went far toward curtailing his military-industrial complex - for example, halting nuclear testing for 18 months while the Reagan administration continued to test. But when personal perks are threatened, even the faithful military machine may resist. Last March, I witnessed in Tallinn a demonstration of Russian settlers and Soviet officers - many in uniform, with fur-coated wives and children at their sides.
Their banners read: ``The Army and People Are One'' (supplanting earlier claims that ``The Party and People Are One''). A large percentage of the total population in the Baltic countries consists of Soviet military personnel. They vote in local elections (skewing the results), back the Russian worker-settlers there, and prefer not to retreat to an uncertain future without good housing in Russia.
FOR their parts, the Balts have pursued a ``singing revolution'' and tried to avoid violent encounters with Russians. Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have declared their independence, but have not gotten rid of the Soviet military bases and all-Union factories in their midst. The Balts will not initiate a war, but even their patience may break if sufficiently provoked.
Draft-resistance raises a larger question of kto kovo? - who will win? Gorbachev wants to show that he is in charge. He has tried to use draft-resistance as a pretext for replacing the Balts' elected governments with puppet regimes obedient to Moscow.
Gorbachev probably hopes that, as in 1956 or 1968, the West will be too focused on conflicts in the third world to object mightily to black berets and tanks enforcing Soviet imperium. The Kremlin has already gotten tremendous leverage from its mere acquiescence in United Nations resolutions against Iraq.
If the Kremlin draws more blood to deny national self-determination to its own peoples, American patience may wear thin. Perhaps President Bush could put up with a Tiananmen Square writ large in the Soviet republics, but Congress would not. If more evidence surfaces that Soviet military aid is still going to Iraq, even President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl might object.
All the ingredients are present for a swing back toward a new cold war between the Kremlin and the West. Care packages will hardly dissuade hard-liners in Moscow from asserting their vested interests. It is a time when Western policy should demonstrate more firmness than flexibility toward the Soviet leadership.