MOSCOW, FEB. 20 -- When Victor Hirschfeld picked up the Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, and read of Moscow's plans to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, he was ambivalent.

"I was, of course, glad that the suffering would end," he said in an interview in his Moscow apartment. "But the older generation here was raised on victory and greatness," he added.

Hirschfeld is a white-haired veteran of World War II whose eyes still dance with pride over the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany. "This is the first time in the history of our country that we entered a war and had to leave it in compromise. That's a heavy psychological blow."

As the Soviet Union negotiates for a peace without victory in Afghanistan, it is also waging a domestic public relations campaign to combat reactions like Hirschfeld's, which could damage its image as a superpower and the prestige of the Soviet military.

In a country caught up in euphoria over the Kremlin's announced intention to start a troop pullout this spring, the feeling of damaged pride is apparently not nearly as widespread as it was in the United States following the American withdrawal from Vietnam.

Nevertheless, concern over the likelihood of instability in Afghanistan appears to be setting in, particularly among veterans and an older generation weaned on the idea that the Soviet Union should always be victorious.

"Responses here are varied about the troop withdrawal plans," a 50-year-old Soviet scientist said in an interview. "For intellectuals it is welcome news. But there are a few others who believe very strongly in the war and feel bitter that Moscow invested so much in a war and will have little to show for it."

Through its publicity campaign, Moscow has sought to overshadow the view that it failed to meet its objectives in the war by exposing the widespread suffering that has befallen Soviet families because of the conflict. "Mothers are waiting for their sons to come home," Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze told Afghan journalists in Kabul a year ago.

The campaign to defend the honor of the military has included Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov's attack on media criticisms of soldiers and features on the heroic contribution Soviet troops have made toward ushering a new era into Afghanistan.

This week, a major newspaper stepped up the campaign to explain the military's intervention in Afghanistan -- and its departure "with honor" -- by saying the withdrawal is now "inevitable" and the Soviet Union has nothing to fear from it.

The article, entitled "Afghan Questions," dramatically reversed earlier portrayals of the intervention as an effort to defend a popular communist regime against a revolt inspired by western intelligence services.

As it turns out, Alexander Pokhanov wrote in Literaturnaya Gazeta, "The experts who evaluated the situation in the country were mistaken."

"There were mistakes on the part of specialists on Islam, diplomats, politicians and military people," Pokhanov said.

He also conceded that the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the pro-Soviet party that the Kremlin believed would establish stable rule, had failed. The Afghan party, he said, "did not become the force acknowledged by all the people."

"It is possible to state that the primary aims announced by the {People's Democratic Party} have not been reached," he added. "If that is so, then the very presence of Soviet troops in the country loses its sense. The withdrawal is logical and inevitable."

So far, public reaction to the pullout announcement has been overwhelmingly positive both in the state-controlled media and in private conversations.

A letter to the editor of Pravda even welcomed the imminent establishment of an independent Afghanistan on the southern border of the Soviet Union. At the time Soviet forces were sent into Afghanistan there had been fears expressed that an Islamic revolution might overflow into this country from Afghanistan.

Even in the state-controlled media, however, reactions of military officials to the pullout have been muted or slightly at variance with assessments by civilian specialists.

Asked at a press conference this week whether the intervention had been a mistake, a senior Soviet military official reiterated the explanation Moscow gave for entering Afghanistan eight years ago.

"It was an act of assistance based on a request by a legitimate government," said Col. Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, deputy head of political administration for the Soviet armed forces. "Therefore it was not a mistake. It was a fulfillment of our duty."

Volkogonov also said that the experience in Afghanistan had not changed the Soviet commitment to assist its allies. "This does not put in doubt our readiness to provide moral, diplomatic, political and other forms of help to a friendly regime."

Such statements from the military have prompted speculation among western diplomats that officers and enlisted men may be opposed to the withdrawal. In this country, however, where military officials rarely take public stands against official positions, it is impossible to confirm the existence of conflicts of opinion between military and political officials.

In private conversations, however, some war veterans are skeptical about the decision to withdraw. According to Hirschfeld, a retired Soviet military commander and academician, the military still thinks the war provides valuable training for officers and enhances the status of the Army.

Nevertheless, western diplomats believe the pullout will boost the images of both the Soviet Union and Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In this view, the start of the pullout -- tentatively set for May 15 -- would strengthen the Soviet negotiating position during the U.S.-Soviet summit and the Communist Party conference, both of which are scheduled for this spring.

"If the pullout goes well," one diplomat said, "it will help Gorbachev get what he wants from President Reagan . . . . In the party conference a successful pullout start would help him get rid of the remnants of the older generation of party leaders who can be blamed for the war."

Hirschfeld agrees that Gorbachev is likely to gain from the withdrawal. "But if a bloodbath occurs after Soviet troops are brought home," he said, "people will blame him."