SOVIET officials from President Mikhail Gorbachev on down are not concealing their unhappiness with the coalition decision to launch and continue the ground war against Iraq. But Moscow is also making it clear that it is not ready to press its differences with Washington to the point of an open break. Since receiving the Iraqi withdrawal statement late Monday night, the Soviet Union has been pushing for the UN Security Council to agree on a cease-fire proposal. [The Council agreed Tuesday there would be no move on the cease-fire until Iraq sent a precise, written acceptance of all 12 UN resolutions.]
But so far the Soviets are not prepared to call an open Security Council meeting against the wishes of the United States, a meeting that would certainly result in the two countries voting on different sides of the Gulf issue for the first time since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August.
``We will not exert any pressure,'' Soviet spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko told reporters Tuesday. ``That period in our relations is past.''
Still, a sense of irritation has crept into Soviet official attitudes toward the US. Speaking at a Minsk tractor factory on Tuesday, Mr. Gorbachev commented that, despite the progress in US-Soviet ties, those relations are still very ``fragile.'' According to the official Tass news agency account, Gorbachev went on to call on the US to show ``a great sense of responsibility'' not to destroy what has been achieved.
Veteran Arabist Yevgeny Primakov, Gorbachev's personal envoy during the Persian Gulf crisis, began an account - and a defense - yesterday of the Soviet Gulf diplomacy from the beginning of the crisis. Mr. Primakov's stand is clearly expressed in the title of the first in a series begun yesterday in the Communist Party daily Pravda - ``The War That Should Not Have Been.''
Primakov made numerous trips to Iraq during the crisis, the latest two weeks ago, where he used his more than 20-year friendship with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to try to negotiate an end to the conflict. The first part of his account covers the period from the Iraqi invasion through his first trip to Baghdad on Oct. 4. He provides evidence for the argument that the door for a political solution was open virtually from the start, provided the West was willing to deal with broader Middle East issues, pa rticularly the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Primakov begins his account with the statement made by Saddam on Aug. 12, in which he linked withdrawal from Kuwait to Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The West rejected such linkage as an unacceptable attempt to seek political justification for aggression. But Primakov suggests it should have been taken seriously. Wasn't it possible, he asks, ``to use political settlement of the Kuwait crisis as an impulse towards solution of ... the Ara b-Israeli problem?''
The Soviet presidential adviser says that the Soviets pushed this view in early September at the Helsinki summit between the two presidents. Although the US would not agree, he says, the summit had a positive outcome in that President Bush agreed he ``was going to resolve the Kuwait problem by peaceful means.''
Primakov's account of his first meeting with Saddam in October largely supports his contention, which he has made previously, that the Iraqi leader needed a face-saving way out of the conflict. Primakov describes himself telling Saddam that there is no way out other than withdrawal.
Saddam, he recalls, replied: ``If I face such a dilemma - to kneel, to surrender, or to struggle - then I would choose the latter.'' But, Saddam continued, ``being a realist, I understand that in certain circumstances, it is possible to withdraw the troops, but I can only do this if such a withdrawal is conditioned by solution of other problems of the region.''
At the airport, Primakov recounts, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz told him that they awaited ``concrete proposals.''
The Primakov account in Pravda stops there, but in a separate interview published yesterday in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, Primakov talks about his final visit two weeks ago and says Saddam was ready to consider unconditional pullout then. He criticizes Mr. Bush for the decision to begin the ground war, contending they should have given ``at least a couple of days for the politicians to work it out.''
Although the Soviet peace plan to which Iraq finally agreed contained no reference to other problems in the region, the Soviets have indicated they may have made different assurances privately to Iraq.
Gorbachev said on Tuesday that the UN must take up the effort to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict when the Kuwait conflict is settled.
``Without solving it,'' Tass quotes him as saying, ``we shall preserve the powder keg there which can blow up the world. What has happened in the Middle East shows how pressing the issue is.''