Soviet leaders are scheming to cut the apron strings that have tied Fidel Castro to them for the last three decades.

The Soviets want to dump Cuba as quickly as possible, but they are worried about how that will look and what their chronic welfare case, Castro, will do. Soviet aid to Cuba already has been reduced. But an abrupt exit from Cuba for economic reasons could make the Soviets look weak, especially coming on the heels of their retreat from Afghanistan.

Castro has been the ungrateful child of the Soviets during glasnost. He has denounced the Soviet attempts at reform and refuses to abandon Marxism. Yet he continues to soak up the resources of the Soviet Union while making it clear that he disapproves of the hand that feeds him.

The Soviets are facing the fact that all the money they have poured into Cuba has not bought them any influence with their client state. Cuba broke with the Soviets over the Persian Gulf crisis, and has refused to denounce Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Politics aside, the Soviets simply can't afford Castro anymore. Cuba receives $5.1 billion a year in Soviet aid -- $1.1 billion of that being military aid. Soviet leaders are disgruntled that not only is Castro ungrateful to the point of hostility, but also has squandered the money. Bread lines in the Soviet Union are becoming a more pressing problem.

In typical back-door style, the Kremlin is dropping hints about Castro's future. Last week, the Soviet airline Aeroflot announced that it may move its Latin American base of operations from Havana to Miami. The stated reason was lack of a predictable fuel supply in Cuba, but if Cuba is short on fuel, it is in part because the Soviets have cut oil shipments.

The Soviet press, meanwhile, is becoming more bold about criticizing Cuban living conditions and economic policies. Pravda published a letter from a Ukrainian official. He claimed that a group of sick Soviet children -- victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster -- were invited to Cuba for medical treatment and recuperation. When the children arrived, their Ukrainian escorts complained about the poor health facilities and questionable care. Another report accused the Castro regime of exaggerating cutbacks in Soviet oil shipments.

"Cuba depends on us to an immeasurably greater extent than we depend on it, and this dependence is growing," the press commentary said. Even under the looser press climate of glasnost, such bold commentary on formerly taboo subjects is a sign that the opinion is sanctioned by the Kremlin.

The Cubans are already feeling the impact of a withdrawal of Soviet affections. Castro is rationing food, fuel and household goods because of the slowdown in Soviet imports.

Sources told our associate Scott Sleek that the Soviets want to make their withdrawal from Cuba as painless as possible, and that may be one reason why the Kremlin has asked the United States to soften its trade embargo with Cuba.

But U.S. officials aren't cooperating. The Bush administration knows Castro is weak and would rather tighten the screws to finish him off. When push comes to shove, the Soviets will continue to cut aid to Cuba anyway. They need the cash at home.