Suddenly, The Soviets Deal A Wild Card

Braving the American bombardment, Soviet envoy Yevgeniy M. Primakov went to Baghdad on Feb. 11 on a diplomatic quest to end the gulf war. While yielding no clear-cut breakthroughs, Primakov's mission did produce some tantalizing signs. Saddam Hussein, a valued client of the Soviet war machine, said he was willing "to extend cooperation to the Soviet Union" to find a way to peace. And Saddam agreed to dispatch his Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, to Moscow for further discussions with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Soviet gambit puts Washington and its anti-Saddam allies on edge. While the Soviets are unlikely to undermine Washington's fragile coalition, their new maneuverings are the latest and potentially most explosive development in the month-old gulf war. The Soviets' independent overtures to Saddam promise to complicate Bush's management greatly--just as he readies allied forces for a ground war.

MASS APPEAL. In recent days, Soviet officials have made no secret of their growing displeasure with the American conduct of the war. They have criticized the U. S. for killing thousands of Iraqi civilians and have accused Washington of a not-so-secret agenda to destroy Iraq and eliminate Saddam. Moscow's complaints surely strengthen the Iraqi leader's hand, as Soviet sympathy could add immeasurably to the potency of his appeals to the Arab masses. While the White House professes to be unconcerned about the Primakov mission, growing Arab unease could even force Bush to advance his timetable for a ground offensive.

Some Middle East experts believe that Saddam's strategy is to prolong the fighting in hopes that Iraqi civilian deaths, his Scud attacks on Israel, and his ability to stand up to the U. S. will eventually inflame public opinion in some of the coalition's Arab partners, particularly Egypt and Syria. These poorer countries are not natural partners of the Saudis and Kuwaitis, and Syria has tended to oppose the West.

So far, Arab leaders have staked too much on defeating Saddam for them to back away easily. But more news such as the Iraqi charge that an allied air strike on a Baghdad bomb shelter on Feb. 13 killed 500 civilians could eventually shake their resolve. Already, Saudi Arabia is worried that it is only a matter of time before Saddam's psychological warfare puts Arab coalition members on the defensive, according to Western diplomats in Riyadh. The Saudis will also be rocked if the fighting is still raging when 1.5 million Moslems from around the world arrive for the Hajj--the annual pilgrimage to Mecca--in June.

NO BACKSEAT. There is an outside chance that Soviet efforts could persuade Saddam to leave Kuwait. While such a diplomatic coup would save bloodshed, it could leave Washington flat-footed. A Soviet-brokered solution would boost Moscow's flagging prestige in the region overnight, shattering Washington's dreams of a postwar Pax Americana. It would also prove to Gorbachev's critics that he isn't taking a backseat to Washington in diplomacy. Gorbachev "is behaving in a way to distinguish the Soviet Union from the U. S for the postwar period in the hope of buying some influence," says Michael Mandelbaum, director of East-West studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Yet the initiative is clearly not coming from Gorbachev alone. The new Soviet tack in the Middle East is another sign of political turmoil in the Kremlin, as hardliners reassert themselves. The Soviet military and political conservatives are putting extreme pressure on Gorbachev to find some way to bail out Saddam, notes Alexei Arbatov, head of the Arms Control & Disarmament Dept. of Moscow's Institute of the World Economy & International Relations. One reason: Saddam has been the Soviet's best arms customer. From 1984 to 1988 alone, he bought $15.4 billion worth of Soviet weapons, including late-model T-72 tanks and advanced MiG-29 jet fighters (table). What's more, because of the war, Iraq is no longer paying off the nearly $10 billion it owes Moscow. "The Soviet Union is suffering more serious economic losses than any other developed country," argues Vladimir A. Isayev, director of the Arab Economics Dept. at Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies.

COUNTERWEIGHT. Hardliners fear that the U. S. will parlay the gulf war into an unchallenged political and commercial hegemony lasting for years. Some Soviet press reports are reverting to cold-war-style charges that U. S. business interests are masterminding the gulf war while the Pentagon has imperialist designs on the oil fields. During a recent conservative rally in Leningrad, protestors carried portraits of Saddam.

The Soviet hard-liners want Moscow to return to its activist policies in the Middle East, where Kremlin backing for such Arab clients as Iraq and Syria served as a counterweight to U. S. support for Israel and Saudi Arabia. One way to do that would be to distance themselves from the battering of Iraq and try to ensure Saddam's survival.

But most observers doubt that the Soviets will openly side with Baghdad. Having signed on to the U. N. resolutions that paved the way for war, they would look foolish if they rejected them now. And any Soviet attempt to resupply Saddam Hussein's military machine would jeopardize improved relations with the West as well as billions of dollars in aid from Western Europe, Kuwait, and the Saudis.

For Saddam, however, Primakov's appearance in Baghdad is a huge boon. The visit makes the Iraqi leader seem less isolated and may boost the morale of his troops and supporters. In addition, the Soviet criticism of allied bombings of civilian areas adds credibility to his efforts to portray the war as a vicious attack on Moslems by Western infidels. For Bush, a quick end to the war has suddenly become more important than ever.

      Country    Arm sales *   Advisers    Base
              Billions of dollars         Access
      IRAQ           $15.4        200 **    NO
      SYRIA            6.9      2,000      YES
      LIBYA            3.6      1,500       NO
      YEMEN            2.8      1,000      YES
      ALGERIA          2.5        700       NO
      JORDAN            .9         --       NO
      EGYPT             .5         --       NO
      *Arms deliveries from 1984-88
      **Soviets claim all were withdrawn in late 1990
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