So you've heard the Soviets are in trouble in Afghanistan . . . that their client regime there can barely rule itself . . . that the Kremlin would just love to find a face-saving way to call its troops back home . . . .
Well, Alexei Petrov begs to differ
But senior foreign diplomats and at least some Soviet officials report that Mr. Petrov does not exist.
Alexei Petrov is believed to be a pseudonym fof men in the upper reaches of the Soviet policy establishment. For well over 1,000 words in the Aug. 5 edition of pravda, he peered through Kremlin eyes at Afghanistan.
This, against the background of the latest Western diplomatic initiative on the Afghan crisis, is the way things looke:
The West, "especially" Ronald Reagan, is spinning ever-more-subversive intrigues "against the legitimate government of the sovereign state" of Afghanistan.
This is not particularly surprising. Mr. Reagan is the selfsame President who has been funneling "hundreds of American military advisers and . . . large-scale arms deliveries to the reactionary junta" of El Salvador to "put down the people's liberation movement" there.
In league with the likes of China, Britain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan , the US is stepping up moves to train and equip anti-Afghan "bandits at special camps on Pakistani territory."
Pakistan's "direct collusion" with Washington is no less obvious than that of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
"Another link in the US plan is to influence Iran in such a way as to head off a normalization of relations between it and Afghanistan, and to fan up anti-Soviet sentiments in Iran."
Afghan leader Babrak Karmal and his regime are, meanwhile, an "indisputably" nonaligned party that, as is its right, has chosen to be "friends" with Moscow.
The Afghan regime owes its position to the "support of its people . . . . The people of afghanistan have made their choice."
As for the latest, British-led negotiating initiative on the so-called Afghan question, it would be nice to think the West had finally "realized the futility of . . . interference in the domestic affairs of the afghan people." But "alas, the real actions by the West . . . attest to the contraty."
The collective Mr. Petrov added that Moscow would be perfectly happy to consider withdrawing its own "limited contingent" of troops from Afghanistan -- but only if outside recognition of the afghan regime, particularly by neighboring Pakistan and Iran, were a ground-floor part of the bargain.
So does all this mean the Soviets are actually having a nice time in afghanistan? Undoubtedly not.
The Petrov article seemed to hint as much at one point, saying that the Soviet decision to dispatch its troops southward had been an "uneasy" one.
There have been periodic references inthe official press here -- intermingled with reports on "normalization" of life in Afghanistan -- to raids by "counterrevolutionary bandits."
And although there is no mention of any Soviet casualties, Muscovites seem able to read between the lines.
On a recent stroll through the Soviet capital, before the latest unrest in Poland, this writer queried an unscientific sample of men and women on various world trouble spots
Poland they invariably said, seemed to be doing a bit better. But the Afghan situation, they added, wasn't.
One 17-year-old man was asked whether he'd like to fight in Afghanistan. "I'm a medical student," he replied with visible relief, "so I don't have to go into the Army in the near future."
A slightly older man said he had done his requisite service before the Afghan crisis. He added that he had no friends who had fought in Afghanistan.
"But I have acquaintances of acquaintances . . . through conversations. From what we hear, there is nothing good there."
One teen-age recruit in uniform said he didn't know much about Afghanistan. And would he fight there? "If the fatherland asks me to." he replied, "I will do so ."
Still, 1981 Afghanistan for the Soviets remains quite different from 1960s and '70s Vietnam for the Amerians.
The war is not televised. No one is marching on the Kremlin. If none of this correspondent's sidewalk interviews revealed alacrity to join the Soviets' estimated 85,000 troops in Afghanistan, none questioned the Kremlin contention that the boys had been invited in by the Afghans.
Most Muscovites appear to have more pressing issues on their minds: what is, and is not, on store shelves; a record heat wave; weekend escapes to the countryside; and, for those who ponder the world outside, Ronald Reagan and Poland.
Soviet officials, speaking privately, tend to portray the Afghan issue as just one piece in a complex, and increasingly bleak, international jigsaw.
The studiously inexact wording of various Soviet. Afghan, and Western statements or initiatives on teh crisis makes it likely that common ground could be found on a negotiating formula.
But how, when, and whether the Kremlin may actively seek such common ground remains difficult to predict. The Soviets have invested a lot -- militarily but , perhaps more importantly, politically -- in their Afghn policy. Even the most optimistic of Western analysts agree it would be unrealistic to assume moscow won't seek substantive gains from an eventual troop pullout.
This could mean some form of recognition for the Karmal regime, or for a substitute very much like it.
Or it could mean, as the disembodied Mr. Petrov and other Soviet analysts have implied, a visible departure from perceived "anti-Sovietism" in Washington.
One Soviet official, privately reviewing realtions with the six-month-old Reagan government argued that current US policy priorities wouldn't help untangle the Afghan issue "or other things they [in Washington] don't like."