MOSCOW, SEPT. 3 -- The Soviet Foreign Ministry rebuked military commanders and the Communist Party newspaper Pravda today for suggesting that the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf threatened to undermine rapidly improving superpower relations.

Addressing a news conference here, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov defended the airlifting of more than 100,000 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, depicting the move as a legitimate response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He said the Saudi government had invited the American soldiers "to protect that country against possible aggression."

Gerasimov's remarks appeared designed to help create a friendly atmosphere for Sunday's meeting in Helsinki between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Bush. They was also evidence of sharp differences within the Soviet defense and foreign policy establishment over how to handle what is regarded here as the first major international crisis of the post-Cold War era.

The massive U.S. military airlift to a region close to the Soviet Union's southern borders has alarmed Soviet generals who have devoted their professional lives to countering every move by the rival superpower. Appearing before a Soviet legislative committee last week, the commander in chief of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance said that the U.S. buildup in the gulf could jeopardize East-West talks on cutting conventional weapons in Europe.

Asked about Gen. Vladimir Lobov's comments, Gerasimov said he could see "no connection" between the military balance in Europe and U.S. actions in the gulf. He also dismissed as one reporter's "personal opinion" a sharply worded commentary in Pravda on Sunday that suggested the use of force by Washington against Iraq could torpedo superpower detente.

"The Americans appeared {in the gulf} not on their own initiative, but they were provoked into it by Iraqi actions," Gerasimov said.

Until just a few months ago, such open institutional disagreements over sensitive international issues were taboo here. But they have become more frequent with the formal abolition of press censorship and attempts by the legislature to oversee foreign policy.

In addition to setting the Foreign Ministry against the Defense Ministry, the debate over whether the Soviet Union should follow the lead set by the United States has pitted establishment newspapers against each other. The government newspaper Izvestia has taken a noticeably softer line than Pravda, which accused Washington of using the crisis to build political influence and strategic presence in the Middle East.

In a front-page article in Izvestia this evening, commentator Stanislav Kondrashov argued that the rapid dispatch of U.S. troops had removed the possibility of an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia. He added that the U.S. military presence had created favorable conditions for the enforcement of United Nations resolutions calling for an economic blockade of Iraq.

Kondrashov also called for withdrawal of Soviet military advisers from Iraq, saying their presence on the territory of an "aggressor" country had created doubts over Moscow's sincerity in enforcing U.N. resolutions. He said that there were divisions within the Soviet government over whether to pull the advisers out.

The main argument here against withdrawal is the fear that it could jeopardize repayment by Baghdad of a $6 billion debt to Moscow for the purchase of sophisticated weapons.

According to Soviet Defense Ministry spokesmen, there are 193 Soviet military advisers in Iraq, officially described as "specialists" under the command of Maj. Gen. Anatoly Bannikov. Soviet officials insist that the advisers have never had anything to do with organizing the Iraqi army or providing combat training, concentrating instead on training Iraqis in the use of Soviet weapon systems and servicing weaponry sold to Iraq over three decades.

In an interview today, an Izvestia commentator with close ties to reformists in the Soviet leadership went even further than Kondrashov in expressing support for U.S. actions. Alexander Bovin said he thought many Soviet leaders would be "secretly happy" if Washington used force to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.

"We are fed up with him as well," Bovin said. "Inside the county, he has imposed a particularly odious and bloody dictatorship. He has not fulfilled his agreements on consulting us {on use of Soviet military hardware}, either when he attacked Iran or more recently against Kuwait."