MOSCOW, MAY 30 -- Andrei Gromyko, asked the major achievement of Kremlin diplomacy during his 50 years in the Soviet foreign service, replied: "When I was a young diplomat, there was one Germany. Today, there are four."

The comment by the veteran Soviet foreign minister provided a succinct summary of the importance to the Kremlin of the neutralization of a long-standing geopolitical threat. Soviet leaders have long regarded the division of the old German Reich into West Germany, East Germany, western Poland, and the Kaliningrad region of the Soviet Union (formerly part of East Prussia) as a fair reward for the Soviet Union's huge sacrifices in World War II.

Gromyko died in July 1989, just as the postwar world he helped design was beginning to come apart. Since his death, the Soviet Union's buffer states in Eastern Europe have abandoned communism. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact is disintegrating. West and East Germany are well on the way to being reunited. And now comes the ultimate shock to the wartime generation represented by Gromyko: the new German state wants to be a member of NATO.

A year ago, it seemed inconceivable that a Soviet leader could agree to the reunification of Germany, let alone its incorporation into a military alliance deemed to be hostile to the Soviet Union. Today, the unimaginable has become the probable. Mikhail Gorbachev is likely to use his meeting with George Bush to appeal for a face-saving compromise -- but, as seen from Moscow, there seems very little he can do to stop the march of history.

Officially, the Kremlin remains adamantly opposed to German reunification within NATO. But Gorbachev's own advisers seem to be preparing for an about-face on the issue -- as long as they are able to claim that Soviet security interests have been respected. Meanwhile, some Soviet academics who specialize in German affairs are suggesting that German membership in NATO may not be such a bad idea after all.

The new, more sophisticated Kremlin line was reflected in comments here today by Vadim Zagladin, Gorbachev's senior adviser on West Europe. Addressing a seminar on German reunification sponsored by the Soviet Peace Committee, Zagladin said that the the Kremlin would have to reassess its security arrangements if the West failed to take Soviet interests into account. But he added that the Soviet position could change if NATO modified its structure and goals.

"Our public opinion is against Germany becoming a member of NATO, if we're talking about the kind of NATO that exists today. But if some kind of changes take place in the NATO structure, then there will be a completely different situation," he said later in an interview.

When a Soviet journalist pressed him to explain how Moscow could prevent Germany from becoming a member of the Western alliance, Zagladin seemed at a loss for ideas. The Kremlin's options are limited. Any new arms buildup would certainly be resisted by the hard-pressed Soviet consumer. Ironically, Gorbachev's strongest card in negotiations with Bush may turn out to be the growing Western perception of his political weakness.

"Nobody in the West wants to humiliate Gorbachev," said Stephen Larrabee, a U.S. Sovietologist at the Institute for East-West Security Studies in New York. "There is a sense that his domestic fate is tied to the question of how the German issue will be resolved. He needs to avoid the appearance of capitulating to the West."

Assessing the seriousness of the domestic political threat to Gorbachev is difficult, even in an age of glasnost, or openness. Senior Soviet officials are more than willing to drop hints that he is under strong pressure from the military to take a tough stand on Germany. Some military leaders are undoubtedly alarmed by what they regard an attempt to reverse the results of World War II. But there is no evidence they are in a position to mount a coup.

"Our military leaders are paid to worry about our security," said Victor Shein, a senior analyst at the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe. "If someone proposes a solution of the German problem to them that does not threaten the security of this country, then I think they would support it."

The only public opposition to the reunification of Germany and the "loss" of Eastern Europe has come from a small group of conservative commentators and politicians. Hard-line Politburo member Yegor Ligachev has warned about the danger of German revanchism and "bourgeois" trends in several East European countries.

In a television interview last week, Ligachev said he had been talking to many ordinary Soviets who expressed "great alarm" over "the dismantling of socialism in some East European countries."

Over the last few months, the conservatives have lost many of their previous inhibitions about attacking Gorbachev's handling of foreign policy. In a recent interview, writer Alexander Prokhanov accused him of destroying the "geopolitical architecture of Europe created over a period of 50 years" for the sake of international plaudits.

"Gorbachev has betrayed allies," Prokhanov said. "And what has happened as a result? The Soviet Union has not become more secure. It has become defenseless. The strategic parity has been destroyed in favor of the United States, which is doing nothing to disarm itself."

Gorbachev's supporters insist that Soviet security has not been impaired by the Kremlin's "new thinking" in foreign policy. They argue that Gorbachev has succeeded in destroying the old "enemy image" of the Soviet Union in the West, opening the way for both sides to reduce defense spending. They also contend that the new foreign policy line has mass support in the Soviet Union.

"I don't think that the consensus on foreign policy is breaking down," said Georgi Arbatov, the Kremlin's leading Americanologist. "What is true is that the domestic political struggle has got much sharper, and foreign policy is being used as a weapon in this domestic struggle. Ordinary people are less interested in international affairs, now that we've improved our relations with the United States."

Public opinion polls suggest that most Soviet citizens view the reunification of Germany with support or indifference. They are much more concerned over domestic problems such as shortages of basic foods, inflation, and the 20-year wait for housing.

According to one poll, 60 percent of the Soviet population now supports a reunited Germany. Only 11 percent of those questioned thought Soviet troops should remain in East Germany after reunification. Asked whether a reunited Germany should remain outside military blocs, 67 percent answered yes, and 17 percent no.

The arguments in favor of Germany joining NATO were laid out recently in the Communist Party youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda by Vyacheslav Dashichev, a leading Soviet analyst on German affairs. He argued that the traditional concept of a "balance of forces" in Europe had become irrelevant following the loss of the Kremlin's East European buffer zone last year.

"European stability today depends in many respects on the social, political and economic development of the East European countries, on their success in overcoming their crisis and their entry into the new era of democracy and economic prosperity," Dashichev wrote.

At a press conference last week, Gorbachev mixed some tough-sounding remarks on Germany's NATO membership with hints that he is ready to strike a deal. He suggested that Germany could have the same kind of status now enjoyed by France, which is a member of the political wing of the alliance, but not its integrated military command. Further concessions and evolutions in his position probably lie ahead.

Asked at the same news conference if he was indeed under pressure from the Soviet military to take a hard line on German reunification, Gorbachev avoided giving a direct answer. If he admitted the premise of the question, it would look as if the Soviet military was interfering in politics. But if he pooh-poohed the military's influence, he could lose an important bargaining chip.

In the end, he replied: "Our military has roughly the same amount of influence on these matters as in the United States." Then he smiled to himself, satisfied that he had found a suitably ambiguous formula.