THE Soviet Union is engaged in a flurry of last-ditch diplomacy to halt the Gulf war before the conflict widens into a full-scale ground war. The dispatch of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's personal envoy to Baghdad, the expected arrival in the Soviet capital early next week of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz, and of the Iranian foreign minister today are described by Soviet analysts and officials as a final effort to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. After this, ``for us it is difficult to imagine what else could be done,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin said yesterday.
Soviet officials strongly reject suggestions that the Soviet effort represents a split with the allied position.
``The Soviet Union is on our side and rejects the occupation at the highest level,'' Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah told reporters yesterday following a meeting with Mr. Gorbachev.
The Soviet position on Iraqi withdrawal remains ``uncompromising,'' Yevgeny Primakov, Gorbachev's envoy and a veteran Arabist, told reporters upon his return Wednesday.
But he added that although there was no immediate sign of an Iraqi pullout, ``there are rays of light which enable us to think more optimistically.''
Despite these words and the evident concern expressed by Gorbachev and others over the escalation of the war, there is little evidence that the Soviets expect dramatic success. Rather, Soviet experts suggest, Gorbachev's diplomacy is the product of a number of complex factors, both internal and external.
Domestically, the Soviet leader is under pressure from both conservative Communist hard-liners and his country's own large Muslim population to take a position more sympathetic to Iraq. There are also real concerns that a widening war, both geographically and in the use of chemical and biological weapons, could touch Soviet soil, only several hundred miles from Iraq.
From the viewpoint of Soviet foreign policy, the Soviet Union is seeking to carve out a role for itself in the postwar Middle East. Unable and unwilling to do so through military participation, the Soviets are positioning themselves as peacemakers who would help design a new security structure for the region, analysts suggest.
Mr. Primakov's mission was not a new peace initiative, says Vitaly Naumkin, deputy director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, the think tank that Primakov used to head and still has close ties to.
``The main purpose was to try to convince Saddam Hussein to compromise without encouraging him ... to convince him that the only way for him to survive is to withdraw now,'' Mr. Naumkin told the Monitor.
But the veteran Middle East expert said he was not very optimistic about the Iraqi leader's response. Looking realistically at the situation, ``in the eyes of Arabs and a lot of Muslims, he might be seen as a hero if he stops now.''
But ``[Saddam] wants to continue [the war] ... because [he believes] there is not any future for him,'' he says.
Indeed, Soviet military and civilian analysts are anticipating an early start to the ground war.
``If I were the allied command, I would do my best to start the advance as soon as possible,'' before weather conditions deteriorate and the Islamic holiday of Ramadan begins, Lt. Col. Vladimir Lashenko, an armored-warfare specialist, told the Monitor.
Under optimum conditions, he predicted, the allies could gain a quick liberation of Kuwait, perhaps in one to two weeks. Though Soviet Defense Ministry officials arranged the interview, they stressed the officer's opinions did not reflect an official stance.
The allied air campaign has not succeeded in destroying well-protected Iraqi troops and supplies, Colonel Lashenko said, but it had badly damaged the Iraqi economic infrastructure and supply lines to forces in Kuwait. If the war stops now, he estimates it will take five to eight years to restore the economic damage.
``With every day, however, the effectiveness of this impact is reducing,'' he adds.
Although Iraqi defenses are formidable, the Soviet military expert believes that the coalition forces have a crucial advantage in their ability to use marine and airborne troops. Iraqi coastal defense is weak, he says, and the marines and parachute units will be effective in cutting land communication lines and forcing Iraq to commit its mobile reserves. This assault would be combined with a frontal ground attack that the Soviet officer suggests would be more effective along the entire length of the Saudi-Kuwait border, neutralizing the Iraqi reserves.
Some allied units may bog down, but if they succeed in separating Iraqi forces in Kuwait, ``then the objective of liberating Kuwait could be attained quickly,'' Lashenko concludes.
The officer's dispassionate military analysis is in contrast to clearly anti-American views frequently expressed in recent days by some senior military figures and others.
A typical commentary, appearing in the Communist daily Pravda on Wednesday, accused the United States of using the United Nations resolutions as a ``license to kill'' and a means to ``strengthen its economic and military superiority.''
Gorbachev genuflected in this direction last Saturday when he issued a statement expressing concern that ``the logic of the military operations and the character of the military actions are creating a threat of going beyond the [UN] mandate.''
For the conservatives, ``the Persian Gulf is only one instrument in a political struggle,'' says Naumkin.
``Real emotions are present in a considerable part of our Muslim republics,'' whose loyalty Gorbachev is anxious to retain because of the Baltic crisis.
``Gorbachev is playing a game,'' says Naumkin. ``It has nothing to do with breaking the agreement with the Americans. On the contrary, in order to keep that line, he must express sympathy with innocent victims in Iraq while putting the responsibility on Saddam Hussein.''
Moreover, the specialist suggests, ``the Soviet Union being a mediator is the best way to be useful to the coalition.'' In this role, the Soviets are preparing for creation of a postwar security system, which Gorbachev referred to in his Saturday statement and discussed with the Kuwaiti foreign minister yesterday.
Although Soviet officials have not spelled out their thinking on this, Naumkin believes that in a postwar order, the West, the Soviet Union, and maybe China would guarantee regional security, including bans on nuclear, chemical and advanced conventional weapons. At the same time, negotiations should begin to resolve all conflicts, including the Palestinian issue.