The Soviet leadership, wary of a strictly military solution to the Persian Gulf crisis, is playing a growing role in urging the Bush administration to give diplomacy time to work before using force to back up United Nations sanctions against Iraq, according to Soviet and U.S. officials.
In a series of almost daily messages, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze has told Secretary of State James A. Baker III that while Moscow supports the U.N. embargo against Iraq, Soviet officials do not believe the time has come to use naval force to enforce it, the officials said yesterday. Moscow so far has declined to support a U.S. push for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing "minimum use of force" to block Iraqi shipping.
Moreover, the Soviets appear to want to preserve their position as potential mediators between the United States and Iraq, with which they have a longstanding relationship. After meeting Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi this week, Shevardnadze sent a letter to Baker yesterday reporting on his conversations and outlining some suggestions for handling the crisis, one official said. The two ministers, who have engaged in unprecedented cooperation since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, also spoke by telephone, officials said.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, said after meeting in Moscow yesterday with Shevardnadze, "We greatly appreciate the Soviet position at the U.N. -- the condemnation of brazen aggression and the Soviet Union's insistence that Iraqi troops be withdrawn from Kuwait and that the country's legal government be restored." The ambassador appeared to view the Soviet Union's economic and political relationship with Iraq as a kind of alternative means to resolving the crisis. The Soviet Union, he said, "could play a big role in one way or another to persuade President Saddam Hussein that he acted improperly and must return everything to its proper place."
The Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia do not have official ties, but the Soviet news agency Tass said that the two sides discussed "raising the level" of diplomatic relations.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they remain satisfied with Soviet cooperation in the crisis, and that efforts are being made to persuade Moscow that some military force may be required to stop Iraqi oil from slipping through the international economic and trade embargo. In particular, U.S. officials were pointing to a tanker carrying Iraqi oil that was docked in Yemen, saying that a military response might be called for if Yemen agrees to allow the oil to be unloaded. However, officials said they were uncertain of Yemen's intentions.
"What the Soviets were looking for is real, clear evidence that the sanctions are being violated," said one U.S. official.
A second administration policy maker said the Soviets had balked initially at the U.S.-backed resolution at the United Nations authorizing the minimum use of force because "they thought we were moving too far, too fast . . . . We may be moving more quickly than they can keep up with." In addition, this official said, the Soviets have told the United States "they don't want to burn all their bridges with the Iraqis."
The policy maker added, "It's a question of timing. Having joined the international consensus, they say the sanctions are necessary, and should be enforced, but they want to give it time."
Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Yuri Gremitskikh said, "We believe that when such a serious thing as the use of force is at stake, no matter how limited, we cannot take hasty actions."
Another Soviet official said in an interview that while Moscow did not want to appear to be acting as an official mediator in the crisis, it did want to make clear "to all parties" that a military confrontation would "benefit no one at all."
U.S. officials said that one reason the Soviets had been hesitant about the U.N. resolution this week was that they wanted to let "a decent interval" pass so that Hammadi could return to Baghdad with his message from Moscow. The officials said Shevardnadze reassured Baker, who is vacationing in Wyoming, that he had made a strong appeal to Hammadi to release the foreign nationals there and to withdraw from Kuwait. "They told us they were quite firm," said the policy maker.
Meanwhile, a senior official in the Soviet Defense Ministry, Col. Valentin Ogurtsov, said yesterday that 193 Soviet military experts are left in Iraq, although he insisted that none of them knew in advance, or participated in, the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
Ogurtsov said the advisers teach Iraqi soldiers how to use, repair and maintain Soviet-made weapons and have helped build test ranges. He said the advisers would leave Iraq "after they have reached their contractual obligations," but was not specific. He said no more would be sent to Iraq.
Another Soviet military official, Lt. Col. V. Nikityuk, told the government newspaper Izvestia in an interview published last Thursday that these Soviet "specialists" are not military advisers and that they "have never, ever appeared in areas of combat operations."
Some Soviet specialists on the region said they are skeptical that military force would be effective, either politically or militarily.
"Really massive military pressure in the gulf could aggravate the popular fundamentalist movements throughout the region, and how would that serve either U.S. or Soviet interests?" asked Vitali Naumkin, deputy director of Moscow's Oriental Institute. "Although we may have entered a new stage of good East-West relations, there is great fear in political circles here that the use of military force would start a series of North-South conflicts."
A prolonged military presence in the gulf, Naumkin said, could end up undermining anti-fundamentalist regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere in the region.
Naumkin also said that considering the grave state of the Soviet economy, coupled with Moscow's reluctance to get involved in military actions abroad following the war in Afghanistan, it was unlikely that the Soviet leadership would participate in even a U.N.-sponsored military action except "in the most nominal way."
Soviet economist Vladimir Isayev told a conference in Moscow that Moscow's reluctance to use military pressure in the Persian Gulf was not a matter of protecting its considerable financial interests in Iraq. Although the crisis has increased the price of oil -- a boon to the cash-poor, oil-rich Soviet Union -- Moscow stands to lose more than it gains in the end, he said.
Isayev said that Iraq, which reportedly owes the Soviet Union close to $6 billion, has stopped payments to Moscow. In a complicated payment scheme, Iraq ordinarily sends oil to Bulgaria and India in the Soviet Union's name to help pay off Moscow's debts for consumer goods from those two countries. Now that those oil shipments have been halted, Moscow will have to make up the shortfall to India and Bulgaria.
The Soviet Union has been able to evacuate its nationals from Kuwait. It has about 8,000 citizens in Iraq, mainly military and economic advisers and their families. Officials said that spouses and children would return home. Gremitskikh, unlike U.S. officials, has used the term "detainees," rather than hostages, to describe the status of U.S. and British citizens in Kuwait and Iraq. Both Shevardnadze and Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov emphasized to the Iraqi deputy foreign minister in meetings in Moscow that all foreign nationals must be allowed to leave the region.
The Soviet Union has evacuated its embassy personnel from Kuwait, but a well-placed official said, "The Soviet Union does not in any way assume that Kuwait is lost. We have evacuated the Soviet staff there, but we maintain relations with the Kuwaiti government and with the Kuwaiti Embassy here in Moscow. Our diplomatic relations continue."
A Foreign Ministry source said there was "some indecision at first" in the leadership about how to react to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. "After all," he said, "Iraq was supposed to be our friend, and we have a great many economic interests there. But it is impossible to reformulate an entire policy in one day." And yet the day after the invasion, Shevardnadze and Baker stood side by side at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport and issued a joint statement denouncing the "crude" invasion of Kuwait.
Although the Soviet Union has been a key military supplier and trading partner with Iraq for three decades, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and countless Soviet commentators have expressed embarrassment that Saddam has carried out aggression with Soviet arms. Gorbachev called the invasion "perfidious" and a "blatant violation of international law."
Ogurtsov, however, said that some Soviet military leaders were reluctant to end Moscow's relationship with Saddam. "My colleagues and I are also concerned that it is more difficult to build a relationship with a country than to break it up," he said. "The Iraqi actions have been condemned by the international community and the United Nations. But it is not easy for us to move from full-fledged relations to zero."
Hoffman reported from Washington and Remnick from Moscow.