SADDAM HUSSEIN'S annexation of Kuwait has enhanced the cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union that began at Malta last year. Nothing better demonstrates the illegitimacy and unacceptability of Iraq's action than the joint statement to that effect at the Helsinki mini-summit by the two superpowers, one of whom has been Iraq's mentor for three decades.

President Bush apparently succeeded in ensuring that the Soviets will not obstruct an American use of force to resolve the crisis if other options fail. Of potentially greater significance was the United States' reversal of a decade-old insistence on excluding the Soviet Union from efforts to solve the many conflicts in the Middle East.

But Bush failed to drive a decisive wedge between the Soviet Union and Iraq, and he has failed to secure Soviet military and intelligence cooperation in resolving the immediate crisis, raising doubts about the true significance of this new superpower understanding.

Direct Soviet participation in a U.S.-led military effort to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait was never really an option. The "new thinking" in Soviet foreign policy precludes, for now, active Soviet military involvement away from Soviet borders. A more realistic expectation was that President Gorbachev would agree to pull out Soviet military advisers from Iraq, in the process debilitating Iraq's war-making machine. Gorbachev, referring to "between 150 to 200 Soviet experts," (the real number is probably far higher) refused, saying they would come home when their contracts expired. Gorbachev also refused the symbolic gesture of contributing Soviet ships to join with those of other nations to enforce the U.N.-mandated economic blockade of Iraq. The most important contribution the Soviet Union could make to the resolution of the crisis, however, concerns human intelligence, not hardware or troops. To help plot the most effective course of action against Iraq, the United States requires information about the Iraqi military that cannot be provided by satellites and other means of signal intelligence: How many units are battle-hardened? How high is morale among troops and officers? How loyal to Saddam is the officer corps following years of sweeping purges? How well does the Iraqi military use the sophisticated weapons provided them by the Soviets?

Iraq has been a Soviet ally since 1958, when Abed el Karim Kassem led a coup that toppled the Iraqi monarchy. Soviet involvement in Iraq deepened in 1968, when the Baath party came to power.

The Soviets assumed a direct role in building and training the Iraqi military and intelligence services. Soviet advisers were present throughout the military, down to the battalion level. More Soviet personnel worked at the Soviet embassy in Baghdad than in any other Soviet delegation in the Middle East, with the exception of Egypt. When Soviet advisers were expelled from Egypt in 1973, Baghdad became the center of Soviet activities in the Gulf and eastern Middle East.

The Soviets achieved deep penetration of the military elite, Baath party circles and other leading institutions. The rise of Khomeini in Iran and the fear of Islamic fundamentalism spilling into the Soviet Muslim republics increased Soviet interest in Iraq. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out, Iraqi dependence for armaments, spare parts and general aid from the Soviet Union became more pronounced, allowing the Soviets to gain increasingly complete and accurate information about the Iraqi military.

Knowledge of the military and its mood is essential for promoting clandestine activity aimed at replacing Saddam, should the United States choose that alternative to frontal military confrontation, which would be costly, and to lengthy economic sanctions, which have not proven very effective in similar situations in the past.

Students of the six and a half years of land warfare between Iran and Iraq believe that the cohesion of the Iraqi officer corps and its loyalty to Saddam are not nearly so high as has been reported. Furthermore, only 12 to 14 of Saddam's armored and infantry divisions had real battle experience during the war, and his air force had no real combat experience. The waves of purges Saddam conducted within the Iraqi military have eliminated some of Saddam's most experienced officers and created fear and resentment among the professional soldiers.

The Soviet Union is in a position to confirm such observations and to provide reliable information concerning opposition to Saddam.

Why should the Soviets cooperate with the United States? Gorbachev clearly and testily asserted that the U.S.S.R. is not a minor partner of the United States and that the Soviet Union cannot be bought for dollars. This does not mean, however, that the offering of economic assistance would not dispose the Soviet Union to be more cooperative. For example, East Germany was also not for sale, but Gorbachev's willingness to abstain from obstructing the historical process of German reunification was rewarded by Helmut Kohl's offer of 15 billion marks in aid to the Soviet Union. Similarly, Gorbachev's readiness to negotiate with Japan over the Kurile Islands and other territories seized from Japan at the end of World War II is likely to be rewarded with Japanese generosity. Gorbachev appears to be telling the West that while the U.S.S.R. cannot be bought, it would exhibit a greater degree of reasonableness if it believed it would yield economic benefit. The prospect of superpower cooperation in the Middle East -- an even greater prize than economic aid -- appears to be a major turning point in international politics. But Bush's failure to enlist a more vigorous Soviet contribution in resolving the immediate crisis suggests that there is less here than meets the eye.

There are three reasons for Gorbachev's unwillingness or inability to back up his statements of support of American goals in the Gulf with concrete actions.

The first is that the end of the Cold War does not mean an end to U.S.-Soviet global competition. American and Soviet interests do not and will not coincide in every instance. The Soviet Union is not anxious to see Saddam replaced by a pro-Western Iraqi leader. The United States views Saddam and his threatening military machine as the core of the problem. The Soviets, however, are merely uncomfortable with Saddam for the same reasons they are uncomfortable with Libya's Moammar Gadhafi: They don't like leaders who are unpredictable. The Soviets do not share the West's view that Saddam himself is the problem.

As a power with global reach, the Soviets are unwilling to abandon strategic positions or useful clients in order to satisfy the opposing power. The superpower cooperation that began in Malta has not diminished their competition for power and prestige. It is a chimera to believe that the Soviet Union will ever be a partner to the United States in the Middle East the way our NATO allies have been our partners in Europe.

The second reason for Gorbachev's reluctance to provide intelligence raises questions about his control of the military and the KGB. Both have complained bitterly about the Soviet Union being left "naked" as a result of events in Germany and Eastern Europe. Having been burnt once, the Soviet military and the KGB are doubly reluctant to allow similar developments in the Gulf. Military spokesmen have already expressed their unhappiness with an American military presence only 700 miles from Soviet borders. The present nature of the Soviet system makes it impossible for Gorbachev to deliver on certain things, whether he wants to or not.

The last reason why the new superpower cooperation may yield less than the administration hopes is the Soviets's own "new thinking." Beset by mounting domestic problems, the Soviet Union is not in a position to assume new responsibilities and shoulder new commitments.

In fact, it is difficult to see precisely what an active Soviet contribution to regional conflict resolution might be. It is in no position to offer economic incentives, and it is unlikely to send troops anywhere, not even as part of a peace-keeping force. Its contribution may be limited to what it has done so far with regard to the Gulf crisis: that is, merely allowing more scope for the United States to exercise its own power and influence.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science at American University. Benjamin Frankel is the editor of Security Studies and Arms Control.