* Moscow demonstrated as well that Soviet diplomacy, for many years a joke for its ham-fistedness, is now as sophisticated and competent as any. And Gorbachev's near success, coming amid his country's own political and economic crisis, reminded those ready to write him off that he remains a formidable figure.
What the mediation effort also brought out was the degree of divergence between the Soviet Union and the United States in their approaches to many international issues.
After increasing cooperation on resolving a number of regional conflicts--in Afghanistan, Namibia, Cambodia, Angola and Central America--as well as in ending the Cold War division of Europe, both Moscow and Washington had felt an active partnership developing on the basis of shared views on many issues and an increasing ability to collaborate.
In the long lead time to the start of the Gulf War six weeks ago, however, the Soviet Union came to realize that the two superpowers still have many international interests that are very different and that they take markedly different approaches to a number of problems.
As civilian casualties mounted in Baghdad from the U.S. bombing campaign, the veteran political commentator Stanislav Kondrashov, writing in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia, reminded people that the Soviet Union had implicitly agreed to the deaths by voting for the U.N. resolution permitting the use of military force.
"Our conscience is troubling us today because in this slaughter we have found ourselves on the same side with the murderers," Kondrashov said. "We now have the experience of the first phases of the Soviet-American alliance in the post-Cold War epoch. This experience is a hard one. . . .
"Our policy cannot merge entirely with that of the West, as we mistakenly believed. I am sure that this first hard experience of alliance with Washington will be subjected to exhaustive analysis."
"The Americans, it seems, simply want to go to war, to solve this problem militarily," stated Col. Nikolai Petrushenko, a prominent conservative in the Supreme Soviet, the country's legislature. "In my opinion, this is not morally correct, and we have cause to fear such a major war near us. . . .
"But we also can see that the United States, feeling itself the victor of the Cold War and the policeman of the world, proceeds from a different philosophy in addressing international problems. . . . We must ask ourselves: 'Is this a partner for the Soviet Union in developing a new world order?' "
The Soviet Union has always argued that its proximity to the Middle East gives it a much different perspective on the region. But there are other important political and economic factors:
The oil of the Persian Gulf is used to finance Soviet sales in the region, not to fuel its cars. Politically, the Soviet Union remains firmly committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the context of an Arab-Israeli settlement. It is at ease with regimes that the United States regards as dangerously radical, yet it wants stability in a region so close to its borders. Finally, the Soviet Union appears no more likely to forgo highly profitable arms sales in the future than other countries.
"Our interests sometimes coincide with those of the United States, and sometimes they run in parallel," Viktor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA Institute, a leading Soviet think tank, said in a recent interview. "But not always, and certainly not always in the Middle East. . . . So, here we are no longer adversaries, but how do we cooperate? It's a question not just for the Gulf conflict but for other regions, other problems."
Although as committed as Washington to forcing Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, Moscow shared neither its willingness to use military force nor its conviction that Hussein should be brought down. Moscow, as Soviet officials made clear over the weekend, still fears that even greater, chronic instability could follow this war.
But the priority that the Soviet Union has placed on its relationship with the United States endures despite the Kremlin's feeling that the "most realistic chance" for peace was passed up as "the instinct to rely on a military solution prevailed."
"Our relations have a very broad basis," Ignatenko commented. "We will not express condemnation but only sorrow that the world could not resolve this by peaceful means."
The Plan That Brought No Peace
The Soviet Union and Iraq agreed on a peace plan, but it was too little, too late to prevent a ground war in the Persian Gulf. The plan included these points:
* A complete withdrawal from Kuwait would begin the day after hostilities ended.
* The withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait would be carried out on a fixed timetable.
* U.N. economic sanctions would end after two-thirds of Iraqi forces left Kuwait.
* After a full pullout, other U.N. resolutions adopted after Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait would cease to have a purpose.
* All prisoners of war would be released immediately after a cease-fire.
* Withdrawal of forces would be monitored under the aegis of the United Nations by countries not directly involved in the war.