MOSCOW, AUG. 31 -- Calling the situation in the Persian Gulf "explosive," Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said today that while he had no differences with the Bush administration, the sooner there is a political settlement in the region and the United States can give guarantees of a military withdrawal "the calmer we all will feel."
"We know that an escalation of a military situation is fraught with unknown consequences, so we, all of us, need to act responsibly," Gorbachev said at a news conference. "I don't want any side to use the mistakes of another to provoke an escalation."
The Kremlin leader's remarks appeared measured, referring to a "common" position with the United States and to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's "unacceptable" annexation of Kuwait. He also said the U.S. military buildup was in accord with the United Nations Charter.
But as the United States accelerates its military buildup in the Persian Gulf, other officials here, especially military leaders, are growing increasingly concerned about a potential shift in the balance of military power in the region that could threaten overall Soviet security. Gorbachev today emphasized the need for Arab countries to help find a political solution to the crisis.
Although a joint U.S.-Soviet statement condemning Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has been heralded as the "first post-Cold War agreement" between the superpowers, the alliance, as one Communist Party Central Committee official put it in an interview, "is extremely delicate."
The Soviets, after several days' delay, voted in favor of the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to impose sanctions against Iraq, but they have refused to join the blockade. While the Kremlin quickly halted arms shipments to Iraq after the Aug. 2 invasion, it has not withdrawn 193 Soviet military specialists and 5,000 construction workers stationed there. Moscow also pulled its diplomats out of Kuwait after Baghdad demanded the closing of foreign embassies there.
Concern is especially high among senior Soviet military leaders, many of whom do not share Gorbachev's and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's view that the Cold War is over. Gen. Vladimir Lobov, the military chief of the Warsaw Pact, expressed "grave" doubts about the U.S. buildup this week in remarks reported by the official Tass news agency. Lobov warned that the buildup imperils the Vienna talks on reducing conventional arms and "drastically changes the strategic balance in the region."
Lobov's suggestion that the United States could use the current crisis as a pretext to install a long-range force in the region reflects an overall apprehension among older military leaders that Gorbachev has dangerously weakened Soviet influence throughout the world through troop reductions, nuclear disarmament treaties with the West and the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact.
Lobov said that with the potential deployment of 250,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration will have succeeded in forming an enormous "arc" near Soviet borders stretching from Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf. He said that if American troops and equipment arrive in Europe on their way to the Middle East, that could upset the strategic balance in Europe and arms reductions talks.
Some analysts here, including Alexander Bovin, a leading commentator on foreign affairs for the government newspaper Izvestia, see the military anxiety as "natural" and a reflection of generational politics within the Soviet Union.
"You're hearing the split between the old and the new thinking, between military men mainly who see the world through a Cold War lens and Shevardnadze and Gorbachev who do not," Bovin said in an interview. "But, by the way, if the Soviet Union suddenly stationed thousands and thousands of troops in Cuba, don't you think the American military would be a little nervous, despite improved relations between us?"
But the worry is not limited to military conservatives. Even one of Shevardnadze's deputy foreign ministers, Alexander Belonogov, indicated a certain anxiety about U.S. intentions in the region.
"We cannot be overjoyed with the stepping up of American military power in the region -- in the short term because the situation is becoming more and more explosive, in the long term because there is no guarantee that the United States will leave Saudi Arabia after the crisis is over," Belonogov told a committee of the Supreme Soviet, the standing legislature.
Shevardnadze, who has kept in constant contact with Secretary of State James A. Baker III as well as with officials throughout the Middle East, has repeatedly emphasized the need for the United Nations and the Arab states themselves to help create the conditions for a negotiated settlement. Shevardnadze has not criticized the U.S. buildup publicly, but he has made it clear that the Soviet Union has "no plans" to use force in the region.
"You see, there is a general apprehension about where things are going," Sergei Plekhanov, a foreign policy analyst at a Moscow think tank, said in an interview. "We see that the buildup is creating a momentum of its own, so there is great concern here despite our condemnation of Iraq . . . . We want to see that every diplomatic opportunity has been used before anyone comes out with guns blazing."
Well-placed Soviet sources said Shevardnadze wanted to show that the Soviet Union was willing to condemn a longtime ally and arms recipient but at the same to avoid merely "signing on" to the Bush administration's policy. Belonogov told the legislators that the United States gave the Soviet leadership prior notice of its decision to send troops to the gulf, but that Moscow did not signal any overt approval.
Shevardnadze and Gorbachev have also shown a far greater degree of faith than U.S. officials in the possibilities of the United Nations, citing its successes in Afghanistan, southern Africa and other regional conflicts. "The feeling is that now, with the Cold War over, the U.N. is able to play the role it should have been playing from the start," Plekhanov said.