SAN DIEGO -- Anyone who expected the Soviet Union to slip gracefully and quietly into the bosom of capitalism's grandest sports event is in for a disappointment.

Leningrad's Red Star Challenge for the America's Cup hasn't even brought its boat here for the 1992 regatta yet, but already is threatening to stalk off in a dispute over dock space.

The Coast Guard, citing U.S. policy barring Warsaw Pact vessels from a dozen strategic U.S. Navy ports, has banned the Soviets from docking in San Diego Bay. In the interest of international harmony, however, the agency offered a special exception to dock in Mission Bay a few miles away.

But the Soviets are responding with a ringing nyet, saying unless they can stay with everyone else, they may take their yacht and go home.

"It'll be a terrible black eye to the United States if they don't clear this up," said Doug Smith, Red Star's hired American spokesman. "The Soviets will do anything that's asked -- daily inspections, put a man aboard when they're going in and out of harbor, whatever. They're sailors, not spies. They say, 'Do anything you want, just let us sail with everyone else.' "

America's Cup organizers here would love to host the first Soviet Cup entry, of course. Nothing could generate more international interest. But so far, no one seems ready to budge on the dockage issue.

"Our hands are tied," said Cmdr. Bud Chrisman, the Navy's port liaison with the Cup syndicates. "This goes back to World War II, when the Soviets closed all 12 of their seaports to us. In response, the U.S. government closed 12 to the Warsaw Pact {including San Diego} and that's how it's been for 45 years.

"The Soviets haven't recapitulated and opened any of their ports, and ours will stay closed unless the State Department renegotiates port treaties with them."

The dock space dilemma is but one of several the Soviets face in their quest to join the high-stakes Cup game. Other obvious ones are money and inexperience in modern big-boat construction and sailing techniques.

But Red Star is progressing on the other fronts. It recently added the vodka manufacturer Stolichnaya to its list of sponsors, which includes a fertilizer manufacturer and a business magazine. The syndicate claims to have 50 million rubles in the bank, about $8 million at current exchange rates, which is about a third of what a fully funded Cup campaign likely will cost.

Meantime, the first of Red Star's two planned America's Cup Class yachts is coming off the ways and is due to arrive here by huge Soviet air transport in March.

Two skippers have been selected -- Guram Biganshvili, a former Star-class Olympian, and Sergei Borodinov, a Flying Dutchman world champion.

"We know we won't win, but we won't embarrass ourselves," said Biganshvili, a tall, rangy, grey-haired Soviet Georgian who is here making preparations for the March arrival of his boat and team.

"If we have maybe similar speed {to the competition}, we will have a good result. We have always sailed well in small boats, but there are few big boats in the Soviet Union.

"This is very good for the Soviet people. Everyone talks, 'American Cup, American Cup.' Everyone wants to help."

For all the "American Cup" talk, however, no one evidently is too well informed. Lacking high-tech fiberglass construction techniques, the Soviets decided to build their first Cup boat of aluminum.

They didn't learn until they were well into the project that aluminum is not permissible under new Cup rules, and the boat won't be eligible to compete in either the America's Cup Class World Championships here in May or the Cup trials, which start Jan. 10, 1992.

America's Cup Organizing Committee officials have arranged a waiver for the worlds, however, under which the Soviets may race but won't be eligible for a trophy. Meantime, construction has begun on a second, carbon-fiber boat that is being laid up in the factory that built the Soviet space shuttle. Barring unforeseen problems, that boat should be legal for the Cup.

All of which leaves the dockage dispute as the last hurdle, and Smith and Biganshvili are resolved to fight. "Every other team can go into San Diego Bay. Why not us?" said Smith, a member of the San Diego Yacht Club who sells marine insurance for a living.

"We paid our money {a $175,000 performance bond}. Why can't we have the same interaction as everyone else?"

Smith says he may try to circumvent the rules by registering the Soviet yachts in his name as California vessels, then lending them to the team for free. As U.S. flag vessels, they'd be eligible to tie up anywhere, he said.

But that would expose the syndicate to costly California use taxes, he conceded, and Coast Guardsmen still might force the Soviets not to board until the yacht cleared the harbor and entered the open ocean outside Point Loma, where racing will be conducted.

Some wonder why the Soviets are making such a big deal of dockage. The well-heeled Japanese Nippon Challenge was one of the first to seek dock space for the Cup and wound up selecting a yard in Mission Bay, right next door to the spot the Soviets are being offered. As many as four or five foreign syndicates are expected to tie up there.

Mission Bay, five miles from downtown San Diego, has direct access to the ocean and is actually closer to two of the three designated Cup race courses.

But Smith says the Mission Bay entrance channel is shallow and can be dangerous when a big swell is running, and in any event part of the reason the Soviets are entering the event is to be seen, not to be shunted off in a corner.

"We won't go to Mission Bay," he said with finality, "and I've sent a letter to the America's Cup Organizing Committee saying our entire effort may be in jeopardy if this issue isn't resolved in some satisfactory way."