MOSCOW — By the goal that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had set himself--halting the war in the Persian Gulf--his dramatic mediation effort failed.
Although Gorbachev felt he was within reach of the concessions he would need from Iraq's President Saddam Hussein to satisfy the United States, in the end he was unable, despite a weekend of telephone calls, to persuade President Bush and other Western leaders to accept the Soviet peace proposal.
Yet, Gorbachev's effort did make Moscow the focus of world diplomacy last week. More important, it demonstrated that even as a "downsized superpower," the Soviet Union wields considerable influence and that it is determined to use that influence in what is quickly becoming the latest arena of international competition: shaping the "new world order."
While they didn't succeed in stopping the ground war, foreign policy analysts say the Kremlin's efforts were both impressive as international crisis management and instructive in suggesting the degree of difference between Soviet and American interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"We have our own approach to international issues, and throughout the Gulf crisis you have been able to see it in action," a senior Soviet diplomat commented. "We were criticized for a time as being 'yes men' for the Americans. Then, we were accused of obstructing the U.S., and I wouldn't be surprised if some Arabs see us as bullying Iraq. . . .
"The point is that, in the multipolar world we now have, no one country will call the shots, not even the United States. In the Soviet Union, we don't want even to try. . . . We will both uphold our principles and pursue our interests in establishing the new world order that everyone wants."
"We can't build a new world order on the ruins of Baghdad," said Sergei Grigoriev, Gorbachev's deputy press secretary, in explaining the 11th-hour mediation effort. "Our motivation was that straightforward--we did not want to see so many lives lost. We felt that a new world order must, if at all possible, be built peacefully."
As Moscow's diplomatic contacts grew in velocity and seriousness, Grigoriev's boss, presidential press secretary Vitaly N. Ignatenko, denied U.S. suggestions that the Kremlin was buying time for Hussein, an old ally, and maneuvering for its own advantage.
"As a great power and a member of the U.N. Security Council, the Soviet Union believes that it is obliged to seek a settlement of this conflict, which began with Iraq's occupation of Kuwait," Ignatenko said. "We do not have a mandate as a mediator, but we do have an obligation to use all our influence to secure implementation of the U.N. resolutions."
The way in which Moscow set about using that influence, however, was carefully calculated not only to bring about a Gulf settlement but to shape the postwar Middle East and assure the Soviet Union's position there as the one great power able to talk to everyone in the region.
"Some Soviet motives undoubtedly were noble, but their actions were not entirely altruistic," commented Margot Light, a specialist on Soviet foreign policy at the London School of Economics. "International crises shape policies as much and at times even more than doctrine, and this was such a case.
"Moscow was pushed into deciding where it stood and why, and what it could and would do, and its attempt at mediation in the Gulf could become a model for Soviet behavior in other regions, other crises," Light said. "The Soviets would undoubtedly see it as the logical extension of their 'new political thinking' from the East-West confrontation to other conflicts."
As a first case study in the new Soviet style of international crisis management, Moscow's mediation effort impressed foreign policy analysts on several counts:
* In its search for a peace formula in the Persian Gulf, the Soviet Union found itself working closely with a wide range of countries, including past ideological foes, which accepted its attempt as a good-faith effort. Although Washington fumed about Moscow's "meddling," as one senior White House official put it, most countries welcomed Gorbachev's peacemaking.
* Perhaps the most surprising partner was Iran, which until a year ago cursed the Soviet Union with nearly the same vehemence with which it denounced the United States. Although the two countries had already begun to improve their relations, this cooperation showed a new Soviet ability to form quick, common-cause alliances.
* Although inexperienced in slick image projection, Moscow appealed with considerable frequency and success to world public opinion in order to build support for the initiative and put pressure on the Bush Administration and other Western governments.