The Soviets have suddenly become a major player in the Middle East. They have achieved this success without firing a shot, or threatening to, and have thereby demonstrated that the issues of the region are primarily political and must be addressed by political means.

Take their approach to small and vulnerable Kuwait. To counter Iranian pressures, Kuwait has long attempted to draw in the superpowers. Asked for help, the Russians correctly identified the invitation as an opportunity for a significant but low-key expansion of their presence in the Gulf. They were aided by the negligence of the U.S. Coast Guard in letting a Kuwaiti request for American help lie unanswered for months.

Soviet activism is a fact not only in the Gulf. The Soviets have long resented America's successful efforts to prevent them from playing a prominent role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. They played into our hands in the past by making themselves spokesmen of radical causes and refusing to resume diplomatic relations with Israel: America was the only available superpower broker.

Mikhail Gorbachev, however, spotted a major target of opportunity. My numerous conversations with Soviet leaders and specialists have made it clear that the Soviets well understand how the Arab-Israeli conflict feeds recruits into terrorist activities, fans the flames of Islamic radicalism and puts into question the future of Israel. They understand that this conflict is basically a clash between two nationalisms, Israeli and Palestinian, and that peace is conceivable only as a result of a compromise that will be fiercely denounced by some on both sides.

The Soviets are aware, as the United States seems unable to grasp, that no Arab state can negotiate such a compromise unless qualified, truly representative Palestinians accept it. These Palestinians are not found outside the PLO. No attempt by Israelis, Jordanians or Syrians to sponsor an alternative Palestinian leadership has succeeded. After all the blows it has received and inflicted on itself, the PLO remains the essential partner of any serious peace effort. Whoever attains major influence over it will have major influence on peace negotiations.

That is what Moscow has done. It chose a moment of weakness on the part of its ally, Syria's Hafez Assad, Yasser Arafat's most implacable foe, to strengthen Arafat and his PLO by inducing the two most important splinter groups to rejoin the PLO. The Russians reined in Assad, whose economy is in shambles and who faces opposition within the ruling Ba'ath party for being too close to Iran, and with Saudi Arabia they brokered an improbable high-level Syrian-Iraqi meeting, probably several meetings.

The Russians also encouraged, again with Saudi help, a meeting between Morocco's King Hassan and Algeria's President Chadli Benjaddid, and they have been attentive to a Saudi attempt to get the Soviet Union to cooperate tacitly with Saudi OPEC policy.

Moscow has strongly endorsed an international conference as a framework in which the Arabs hope to escape the stigma of another "separate peace" with Israel.

The United States and liberal Israelis, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, have also accepted the conference idea. But Americans and Israelis see a conference as a formal opening ceremony followed by bilateral negotiations without any conference veto. Russians regard a conference primarily as a means for the superpowers to drive the peace process. They deride the idea that they would simply open the umbrella, let the Americans, Israelis and Jordanians have their way, and quietly fade into the night.

The Soviets hold key levers. Submerging PLO representation in a Jordanian-Palestinian or joint "Arab" delegation is conceivable, with PLO consent, early in the proceedings. In fact, the more the PLO is recognized as an equal partner, the more willing it might be to forgo formal Palestinian statehood and accept some form of association with Jordan. Moscow will have considerable influence on this question -- and on Syrian participation. They, more than we, have become movers.

It is hard to conceive that the White House would have the political will to take the major political risks in a new Middle East initiative. But the next president will surely be faced by this problem. Will he determine that America's vital interests demand a strong initiative, that Israel's future as a country and ally depends on defusing the demographic time bomb of its fast-growing Arab subject population, that the PLO is an unavoidable party? And that Moscow has become a critical part of the Middle East equation? The writer has served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. He is now director of Middle East programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.