WELL, WHAT ABOUT the Russians?

Do they share what we consider basic human values or not? Are they part of our world or not? Are they just international gangsters?

The fate of Flight 007 raises all the old questions with brutal abruptness. What sort of society will cavalierly dispose of 269 human lives to preserve its sense of national pride? How could they do something so stupid?

Aha -- there's the key to it. For this particular "they" -- the men who run the Soviet Union -- shooting down Flight 007 does not seem stupid. It was characteristic and predictable behavior -- behavior that reflects a value system and a society that are profoundly different from our own, despite our stubborn efforts to will it otherwise.

In all likelihood, the decision to shoot down Flight 007 was made out of fear of the consequences if it were not made. Orders are to shoot down intruders; there are no asterisks for benign intruders, because Russians are disinclined to believe that any intruder could be benign. As in any army or police department, a Soviet line commander's best defense is always, "I was just following orders." To take responsibility for making an exception to the standing orders would be irresponsible.

But why not at least say you're sorry after the fact? Why not offer to pay compensation to the victims' families? Surely it would now be smart to do that?

No, not from a Soviet point of view. It is crucial to understand that in Soviet society, one value is paramount: to preserve the system as it exists, and the autocratic power of those who rule it. The system is built on myths, and one of the most important of them is the myth of the infallible Communist Party. The Soviet response to the death of those 269 people is fully consistent with the demands of loyalty to party and system. These Soviet leaders see nothing to apologize for.

Foreigners may make mistakes, but the Soviet Union does not.

Of course this is ridiculous. Soviet history is riddled with examples of appalling official behavior -- Joseph Stalin's great terror, for example. But there is no acknowledgement of this in the official version of Soviet history, the one taught in school.

Stalin's enormous crimes against his own people are dismissed as a "cult of personality," a term that makes no sense until you realize that it was invented to absolve the Communist Party of responsibility for Stalin. His acts were the personal aberrations of one man, not the responsibility of the party -- that's the party line. How could the party leave him in power for more than 20 years? The schoolbooks don't answer that question.

If we begin acknowledging errors or regrets, where do we stop? That is the question that would trouble a Soviet leader. The best answer to it is not to acknowledge anything that might put the system in a bad light.

The mentality of Soviet officials is somewhat like the mentality in big-city American police departments in the 1960s, when police chiefs stood steadfastly if blindly by policemen who were too quick to use force in tense black ghettos. Sure, maybe the men sometimes went too far, but no good chief would admit that -- he had to be loyal to the beleaguered troops, to keep up morale. When citizens demanded civilian review boards to evaluate police behavior, the chiefs staunchly refused to consider the idea. Then the cities exploded in riots, and most big-city police departments changed their ways.

Confronting past errors and attempting to correct them is the pragmatic American way. But for Russians this is an abnormal notion, particularly when the authorities are involved. Ask an American you know who has traveled to the Soviet Union if he ever met a Soviet guide or official who volunteered that his government ever made a significant mistake. Generations of foreign travelers to Russia have been frustrated by the fact that such admissions are virtually never heard.

Yes, these Russians are part of our world, no matter how uncomfortable that makes them. But they are also terrified of us and our world, and react to us as only the fearfully insecure can react. They would like us to admire and respect them, but are confident that we will not; so as a second-best alternative, they want us to be afraid of them.

The Soviet relationship with the rest of the world is like that '60s American police department's relationship with the ghetto -- nervous, defensive, self-protective. Our world is alien and hostile territory to the Soviet leaders. That is one reason why they won't let their people -- with few exceptions -- visit our world, and why they jam the radio broadcasts we beam at the U.S.S.R. They are afraid of us, a fact that we have to understand to deal effectively with them.

To ask the Soviets to apologize for shooting down a foreign civilian airliner is to ask them not only to admit a mistake, but also to cower before foreign pressure -- or so it would seem to them. It requires a sense of security to admit fallibility or to accept criticism from abroad, but the Russians do not have a sense of security. On the contrary, they are riddled with the most profound insecurity in their dealings with us.

Russians feel they have unassailable historical reasons for hypersensitivity about their homeland. Centuries of invasions and abuse by foreigners have persuaded them that protecting "the Motherland" is rightly a paramount consideration. Anyone who has suffered the indignity of a Soviet border guard's search of baggage and person will be familiar with the mentality at work here.

But there is more than pragmatic anxiety about the intentions of hostile outsiders. The Russians have allowed security-consciousness to evolve into a full-blown paranoia. The Soviet Union publishes no accurate map of its own territory -- every town, railroad line and river has been moved ever so slightly on the published maps, to throw off foreigners who might try to use them to plan a military attack. Apparently because the security police could not monitor all the calls, the Soviets dismantled an advanced direct-dialing system for international telephone communications that they installed for the 1980 Olympic Games (to show how up to date they were).

This strikes us as paranoid behavior; after generations of acculturation, it strikes most Russians as normal and proper. The distinction explains why Soviet citizens interviewed on the streets of Moscow in recent days all seem to support their government's actions in shooting down Flight 007.

Those same Soviet citizens, alas, also tend to believe their government's explanations for what happened in the airplane incident. They probably tend to believe the official contention that the nasty Americans were behind the whole thing. The credulity of the Soviet populace is one of the most baffling aspects of that baffling culture, but again, we have to understand it to deal with it effectively.

It is not a totally unquestioning credulity. Ordinary Russians do know from personal experience that the government says things that are not true. Moscow is always buzzing with rumors of events great and small that are not reported in the news media, some true and some fanciful. This incessant rumormongering is evidence that human scepticism survives in the Soviet Union. So is the popularity of Western radio broadcasts in Russian. But most people have been so immersed in the official Soviet view of the world that they find it impossible to escape its grasp.

Moreover, the government may not be universally popular, but it is accepted as the legitimate guardian of the nation's security. A government assertion that security was in jeopardy is widely accepted.

Soviet leaders have a lot of confidence in their own ability to sell a concocted story. They have been doing it for many, many years. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote that in the Soviet Union, "the lie has become not si mply a moral category, but a pillar of the state." He is absolutely correct.

The legitimacy of the Soviet regime is built on mythology, particularly the great myths about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Bolshevik Revolution and World War II ("the Great Patriotic War"). The party line on the history of the Soviet Union has been rewritten time and again to suit the needs of those in power. Today, a serious Soviet citizen literally could not find a true account of the history of his own country in officially-published historical materials.

By now the distinction between true and false has been blurred beyond recognition. Joseph Brodsky, the greatest Russian poet of this generation (and now an American who writes his Russian verse on a stipend from the MacArthur Foundation) once observed that the Soviet Union is now characterized by a kind of doublethink:

"By doublethink I do not mean simply, 'I-say-one-thing-I-do-another,' " Brodsky wrote. "I mean the rejection of a moral hierarchy, not for the sake of another hierarchy but for the sake of nothing. . . . I mean not the mutual destruction of the two basic human categories -- good and evil -- as a result of the struggle between them, but their mutual decomposition as a result of coexistence. . . ."

In this case the senior officials -- probably the members of the Politburo -- who decided (after the incident occurred) how the Soviet Union would handle the crisis of the Korean plane, passed on their decision to the propagandists whose job it is to produce the official explanations. Some of these men are extremely talented, but in the Soviet system even they would not have full access to the facts. They are propagandists, after all -- they have no need to know all the facts. Their job is to take the leaders' decision and make it sound plausible.

This probably explains why the propagandists have stuck to the assertion that Flight 007 had its lights off, even while the recording of the Soviet pilots' voices confirmed that the lights were on. Nobody told that to the propagandists in the beginning, so they got stuck with a bad story.

The Soviets will pay a price -- conceivably a high price -- in the diplomatic arena for shooting down Flight 007. Anti-Soviet forces all over the world have been strengthened by this episode; negotiations with Moscow will be more difficult and less likely to succeed. The Soviets are trying to minimize this damage with their current propaganda counter- offensive, but it is not likely to be a big success.

At the same time we should realize that there is a kind of domestic fringe benefit for the Soviet leaders in this episode. For many years, an artificially exaggerated sense of siege has been a key tool for Soviet leaders seeking to maintain firm control over their huge and diverse country and empire. The presence, real or imagined, of hostile foreign dangers has been used to justify rigid internal controls.

For some time the Soviets have been worried that the Reagan administration would force them into a painfully expensive new round of the arms race. Many of them now consider this inevitable. An incident like the intrusion of Flight 007 will contribute to the atmosphere the Soviet leaders will want to encourage to justify further sacrifices to a Soviet public whose standard of living has already stopped improving as predictably as it did in the '60s and '70s.

Our own misreading of the Russians has fostered the theory in Washington that the old men in Moscow should be grateful to Ronald Reagan for reacting to this crisis so benignly. According to this naive American theory, the Russians should be able to see past the harsh American rhetoric to perceive what they like to call "objective realities" -- that Reagan has imposed no tangible sanctions on them. Therefore he was signaling his willingness to carry on with other important business.

Here is a case where Americans can imagine how Russians might react. What would we do in a comparable situation? The rival superpower is conducting -- t si with great success -- an international campaign to isolate us as inhuman renegades guilty of crimes against civilization. Would we turn the other cheek? No, and neither will the Russians. They won't accept our verbal spankings as gentle treatment, even if they do happen to be fully justified. Because the Soviet leaders are insecure men, especially in their relations with foreigners, the campaign to vilify and isolate them on this issue will aggravate their deepest anxieties about Reagan, which were deep indeed already.

In fact, the successful humiliation of the Russians now will have more significant consequences in Moscow than would a new grain embargo or the cancellation of other commercial contracts. The Russians know they can cope with such sanctions, because they have survived them already. But in this phase of Soviet history, when the Russians are striving to establish themselves throughout the world as the legitimate second superpower, humiliation and isolation will be painful. They will look for ways to strike back. And they are now most unlikely to invite Ronald Reagan to Moscow for a summit meeting in 1984.

What does this episode portend? Should we now expect the Russians to act like gangsters all over the globe? Have we learned something about them we didn't know before?

The answer to that last question ought to be no. The crucial fact about the decision to shoot down Flight 007 is that it was predictable. If you had outlined the circumstances in advance -- overlapping flights by a Korean jetliner and an American spy plane, then an invasion of Soviet airspace by the jetliner that took it over two highly sensitive military areas in the course of a two-hour flight -- virtually any student of Soviet behavior would have predicted this outcome.

Of course this kind of behavior is abhorrent. By our standards the Soviet system is abhorrent. And the range of predictable Soviet actions in the next few years includes events that would further appall us. If the situation in Poland falls apart, the Russians will invade Poland. If offered an "honorable" way out of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union will probably decide to stay there anyway. There's no use kidding ourselves about these possibilities.

But suicidal Soviet behavior is not likely. The Russians will continue to avoid high-risk adventures outside their empire. They will not try to take over the Western world by threat of nuclear war, and they will remain interested in negotiated agreements on nuclear arms and other issues where they feel they can advance their interests. And there will be times when their interests and ours will coincide.

The Soviet Union will remain part of our world, and we will have to deal with that fact, just as they will.