Reports from Washington suggest that the slow and cautious Soviet reaction to the Lebanese crisis reflects weaknesses ranging from internal economic difficulties to the problems of Poland and Afghanistan.
The view from here, however, is sharply different, illuminating differing perceptions in the two capitals and perhaps indicating that there is an element of bluffing in the still fluid Middle East situation.
There is no doubt that the Soviets are embarrassed, particularly by the poor showing of their Syrian allies in Lebanon, who are fighting largely with Soviet-supplied weapons. There is also concern here about the future of Palestine Liberation Organization forces encircled in West Beirut.
But at the same time there is a widely held conviction here that Israel's lunge into Lebanon will inevitably rebound against Israel and produce an anti-American backlash in the Arab world damaging to U.S. interests for some time to come.
Soviet sources cited two propositions to buttress this line of thinking. One is that the Palestinian issue is the key problem in the Middle East and that it cannot be resolved by force short of exterminating all Palestinians. That, according to this argument, is not possible and the PLO will continue to remain a major political force regardless of the outcome of the current crisis.
The second is that the Arab world, including those Arab regimes who fear PLO terrorism and only rhetorically support Yasser Arafat and his colleagues, are emotionally on the side of the Palestinian people. The Israeli actions in Lebanon are seen as sharpening Arab animosities against Israel and making the Middle East problem even more intractable.
Although such views are deeply held, they conceivably may be advanced to obscure Soviet embarrassment and political and military constraints that have limited the scope of Moscow's reaction to the Israeli invasion.
Even if they could react more forcefully without risks, the Soviets have shied away from a confrontation for political reasons ranging from the prospective strategic arms dialogue with the United States to the overall image of Soviet policy, which is emphasizing peaceful approaches to world problems.
Military constraints may have been more serious. While the current situation is obviously undesirable, it does not so far affect vital Soviet interests and therefore is not worth running high risks.
One event that could push Moscow toward high risks would be the introduction of American forces into Lebanon. But in the absence of such moves, which would generate new fears and alarm in the Soviet Union about the nature of U.S. intentions, Moscow has been involved merely in damage control.
The general tone of Soviet public and private pronouncements suggests that Moscow regards the current situation as too complex andfluid to take a definitive stand. Apart from political and propaganda support for the Arabs in general, it seems that no decisions have been News Analysis News Analysis made here on future responses. But the calculations appear to focus on long-term developments.
Western diplomats say they have detected a tendency in Soviet statements suggesting the Russians are prepared to accept short-term humiliation for long-term gains.
Soviet sources familiar with the Kremlin's Middle East policy have disclosed that a basic strategic alliance treaty was reached with Syria and that "it could go into effect instantly" in the current situation. Although the pact apparently has yet to be formally signed, the disclosure was intended to underscore Soviet commitment to Syria in case it is attacked by Israel.
The sources also said that "it is hard to expect that the Soviet Union would permit" the destruction by the Israelis of some 5,000 PLO guerrillas in West Beirut. Whether this is part of propaganda efforts to pressure the Israelis to hold off an assault on West Beirut or whether it reflects a policy decision is not possible to ascertain. But the sources said that "one should remember the Suez crisis" of 1956.
Most Western diplomats discount the possibility of a repeat of Moscow's threat in the Suez crisis to use its military forces to halt the advance of Israeli, French and British forces toward Cairo.
In this view, while the Soviets do not want to get directly involved in the Lebanese crisis they could conceivably be forced to do so if they are cornered by Israeli miscalculations. So far, this has not happened.
Soviet observers refuse to speculate about possible Soviet reactions to future Israeli actions. Privately they have complained about the Arabs' inability to use military equipment efficiently. Publicly, the Soviets have for the first time openly criticized Arab divisiveness and apparent Arab indifference toward the destruction of the Palestinians in Lebanon.
A commentary by the government news agency Tass today said again that Soviet observers "voice suprise that the current barbarous Israeli aggression against Lebanon and genocide against Palestinians have failed to bring immediate and joint Arab actions and are being perpetrated against a backdrop of indifference and passivity on the part of a number of Arab states."
This theme appears to capitalize on what is seen here as a feeling of guilt in many Arab quarters over the lack of concrete Arab backing for the Palestinians in Lebanon. It calculates on public sentiments pushing moderate and even pro-Western Arab governments toward more radical pan-Arab positions.
In this context, Soviet sources say they believe that the Israeli invasion has dealt a mortal blow to the Camp David process. It is expected here that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak will gradually distance himself from Israel and the United States.
Tass said today that substantial blame for the Israeli invasion must be placed in Egypt for entering the "disgraceful" Camp David process. But Tass was critical of the late President Anwar Sadat and made no reference to Mubarak and Egypt's current policy.