The recent decision by the UN to end its relief operations in Cambodia by the end of the year could lead to a significant expansion of Soviet influence in that country, according to Indochina analysts here.
The move could also increase strains between Moscow and its chief Southeast Asian ally, Vietnam.
With conditions inside Cambodia steadily improving, and with new refugee crises looming elsewhere, donor countries have for some time been eager to wind up the Cambodian operations.
In late spring, their efforts received a strong push from an unexpected quarter -- Moscow. The Russians mounted a strenuous lobbying effort to get the UN to end the program.
Observers here believe the Soviets had several reasons for wanting to see a quick end to the relief operations. The most important was concern that the program in Cambodia could be used as a precedent for a similar effort to aid refugees fleeing Soviet- occupied Afghanistan.
The Russians have resisted all efforts to internationalize the Afghan conflict. UN intervention to help the estimated 1.8 million Afghan refugees is clearly not what Moscow wants.
Almost as important, however, is what many analysts see as a Soviet desire to reduce the size of the Western presence in Phnom Penh, which expanded dramatically as the UN programs gathered steam. Cutting back the Western presence would enable Moscow to assume almost complete control over any future relief operations in Cambodia, and thus gain substantial leverage against the Vietnamese.
Such leverage would be extremely helpful to the Soviet Union in what appears to be an emerging struggle with Vietnam for influence in Cambodia. In recent weeks, there have been reports of friction between Russians and Vietnamese in Phnom Penh as Moscow has moved to expand its foothold in the country at Hanoi's expense.