MOSCOW — No one can be sure whether Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has the will and imagination to quiet the deep, long-standing fears and suspicions that many in the world have about the Soviet Union.
But there is little doubt that Gorbachev, with great charm and tact and flair, has managed in a relatively brief time to push Western diplomats and their old assumptions far off balance.
Despite protests from the White House that he has done little more than seize old ideas of President Reagan's on arms control, much of the world sees Gorbachev as an innovator and a pragmatic compromiser, a statesman whose initiative and determination are responsible for the forthcoming treaty that would dismantle and destroy some nuclear weapons for the first time.
Not since the most terrible moments of World War II, when Allied propaganda portrayed Josef Stalin as a tough, taciturn leader inspiring his embattled people into a heroic defense against the hordes of German invaders at Leningrad and Stalingrad, has a Soviet leader received the international acclaim that Gorbachev is getting.
Yet, although he may inspire hope, outsiders really do not know what his reforms portend for them. The dynamism of Gorbachev has set loose a storm of speculation about the future of the Soviet Union and thus the future of mankind. But much of it is contradictory.
Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating the accords that eventually led to the end of the war in Vietnam, has written that if Gorbachev and his supporters "succeed in the objective of making their country stronger--without changing the foreign policy that produced current tensions--the democracies will in the long run be less secure."
But Andrei D. Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his courageous dissent against the harshness of Leonid I. Brezhnev's regime in the Soviet Union, told Times correspondents recently in his apartment in Moscow that "the West must show some interest in the success of perestroika "--the word used by Gorbachev to describe his attempt to restructure the Soviet economic and bureaucratic system.
Perestroika, Sakharov said, "is the road for transforming the Soviet Union into an open society, which is the only actual guarantee of world peace."
The ferment in the Soviet Union can stir the adrenalin in any Kremlinologist who likes to plot the future. The permutations are endless. So is the maze.
If Gorbachev transforms Soviet society, will the Soviet Union be more pragmatic and less adventurous, or less inhibited and more hostile? Will increased confidence foster arrogance or amiability? Will Gorbachev's reforms spread to the satellite countries of Eastern Europe? What if Eastern Europe explodes on him? What if Gorbachev's reforms fail? Will his successors turn inward or outward, perverse or friendly?
Many analysts are wrestling with the intricacies of these questions. Marshall I. Goldman of Wellesley College and Harvard University's Russian Research Center has even predicted to the Senate-House Joint Economic Committee in Washington that Gorbachev will be forced from office "within two or three years." That would leave little time for any of his reforms, including those in foreign policy, to take root.
The analyses sometimes seem to depend on the ideological spyglass used. Some analysts who once found only unmitigated evil in the Soviet past can see only unmitigated failure in the Soviet future. Futuristic scenarios about Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, in fact, reflect so much guesswork, so much chasing after swiftly changing evidence, so much evaluation of shifting sands, that most should be read these days like political science fiction.
Yet despite all this uncertainty, a consensus has developed in the West about some of the foreign policy directions Gorbachev is taking and about some of the geopolitical philosophy that seems to be guiding him.
Analysts agree that Gorbachev needs a respite from East-West tension and a corresponding decline in military spending to devote his full attention and resources to restructuring the woeful Soviet economy. They agree, too, that his reforms may once again set loose nationalist and democratic forces in Eastern Europe. How he deals with them, in fact, may be the touchstone of his foreign policy. The experts also tend to believe that he will refrain from new Third World adventures during the time of respite.
Gorbachev has already changed the tone of Soviet foreign policy. "The changes in contemporary world development are so profound and significant," he told the 27th Communist Party Congress in February of 1986, "that they require a rethinking and comprehensive analysis of all factors involved."