MOSCOW, AUG. 6 -- A well-placed Soviet commentator today predicted that the Kremlin would not object to tougher U.S. action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and may even send Soviet warships to patrol the Persian Gulf in a gesture of solidarity with Washington.

Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last Thursday, Soviet news media have been harshly critical of Saddam's regime, previously regarded as one of Moscow's most important allies in the Middle East. The Soviet decision to suspend arms supplies to Iraq, despite a long-standing treaty of friendship with Baghdad, has been interpreted here as a sign of a major shift in Kremlin policy toward the Third World.

On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, the Soviets appeared to be trying to play a role as mediator, as Soviet media reported that the Kuwaiti ambassador in Moscow had relayed to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev a reply from Saddam on Soviet demands for a complete withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

Igor Belyayev, a Middle East expert for the influential Soviet newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, said he thought there was a "70 per cent possibility" that the Soviet Union would station four or five warships in the gulf to "demonstrate a common purpose" with the United States. The move would parallel action taken by the Soviet Union in 1988 when tensions rose between the United States and Iran over navigation rights in the gulf.

Foreign Ministry officials here refused to comment on the suggestion that Soviet warships might be sent to the gulf, while the Pentagon said that the Soviets had not yet replied to a formal U.S. request that it participate in a multinational naval force being assembled in the region.

According to press reports from the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Dubai, however, a Soviet Udaloy-class guided-missile destroyer was spotted heading for the gulf by a helicopter-borne television news team. According to the authoritative "Jane's Fighting Ships," Udaloy-class destroyers are equipped with eight missile launchers and can carry two helicopters. It was not clear whether the vessel spotted was normally assigned to patrol the gulf.

"We have different interests than the United States in the gulf, but we also want to see this region quiet," said Belyayev, a frequent visitor to Iraq, in predicting that Moscow would not oppose U.S. military intervention in the gulf.

Writing in the government newspaper Izvestia, foreign-policy analyst Stanislav Kondrashov noted that the Soviet Union stood to gain financially from the increase in world oil prices as a result of the gulf crisis, since it is a major oil exporter. But he said such "tactical gains" are outweighed by the strategic goal of integrating the Soviet Union into the world economy.

"It's understood that the Soviet Union will not give its automatic agreement to every measure that Washington might propose. But, for the time being, we will not restrict {Washington's} freedom of action by specifying in advance the boundary beyond which our positions no longer coincide," Kondrashov wrote.

By cooperating with Washington, the Kremlin is undoubtedly trying to create a favorable environment for Western investment in the Soviet Union's troubled economy. But some Arab diplomats here are skeptical about how much Moscow will be prepared to sacrifice -- considering the enormous investment the Soviets have in Iraq -- to support initiatives from Washington.

"I think the Soviets are playing both sides of the fence," one Arab analyst said. "They want good relations with the United States, but they also do not want to lose Iraq entirely."

Soviet officials have preserved an element of ambiguity in their approach to the Kuwait crisis. They have condemned the Iraqi invasion and demanded a complete Iraqi withdrawal but have not given any hint of what action they might take if Baghdad fails to comply.