Three years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Kremlin has yet to admit that its troops are directly involved in an undeclared war.
Thus the presence of a small, but growing, contingent of Soviet prisoners-of-war in Switzerland has placed Moscow in an awkward position.
Although both the Soviet and Afghan governments continue to dismiss the mujahideen (''freedom fighters'') as ''bandits'' or ''terrorists,'' Moscow's willingness to officially negotiate prisoner exchanges through the International Committee of the Red Cross has in effect resulted in a de jure recognition of the Afghan resistance.
So far, only seven Soviet prisoners have been brought to Switzerland. But the Red Cross expects more to arrive in the months ahead. The names, ranks and places of origin of at least 50 Soviets captured since the intervention have been communicated to the Red Cross and several other relief organizations. The list also includes roughly half a dozen who have been executed by the mujahideen. All told, an estimated 200-300 Soviet prisoners and defectors, many of them Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians and other Soviet nationalities, are believed to be captives of the resistance.
As in any war, Afghanistan has not been spared the horrors of atrocities against prisoners on both sides. While the communists have executed, tortured or otherwise maltreated Afghans suspected of guerrilla affiliations, the resistance has often summarily killed its Soviet captives.
The first documented case of a captured member of the Soviet armed forces emerged only in the summer of 1981 when Mikhail Semgonovich Gorchniski, a Ukrainian fighter pilot, was picked up by Hezb-i-Islami Partiansa of the Younis Khales faction after his MIG plane was shot down over Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan.
Concerned Swiss Red Cross officials had already begun secret negotiations on possible prisoner transfers with various resistance organizations long before Mr. Gorchniski's capture. While most of the Afghan groups reacted favorably, the Soviets told the Red Cross that they had no intention of making any deals with ''terrorists''.
Aware of the political capital that could be made out of showing off a Soviet prisoner, the guerrillas smuggled Gorchniski into Pakistan where he was hidden in a local ''safehouse.'' But a Soviet prisoner on Pakistani soil was the last thing the sensitive Islamabad regime wanted. It forced the guerrillas to hand him over to the government who in turn discreetly gave him back to the Soviets. The Afghans were furious. The move also offered little incentive for the resistance to keep captured Soviets alive.
Several months later, however, an elderly Soviet geologist was captured by an urban guerrilla commando in a daring daylight raid in Kabul. This time, the Afghans did not bring him to Pakistan but detained him in a clandestine resistance base well inside Afghanistan. The mujahideen contacted the Red Cross representative in Peshawar and proposed to exchange their prisoner for 50 Afghan prisoners.
This posed to the Soviets the dilemma of whether or not to deal with a group of resistance fighters. If they failed to negotiate, they ran the risk of aggravating further the already poor morale among their occupation troops in Afghanistan. But if they did, it was certain that the mujahideen would fully exploit the issue for propaganda purposes and might indulge in more kidnapping. Moscow refused to bargain.
As for the Red Cross, although fully supportive of any attempts to save prisoners, it advised the resistance against exchanges under such circumstances. Arguing that nothing would prevent the Kabul authorities from simply filling their prisons with people from off the streets, it also feared that furnishing a list of captives would only provide the communists with a ''who's who'' of resistance figures.
This is exactly what happened. The Soviets shot the 50 named prisoners, including the son of Younis Khales, a prominent resistance leader. Six months after the geologist's capture, the guerrillas reported his death by execution although some sources maintain that he died of natural causes.
Such incidents, and the knowledge that other Soviets were being held by the resistance, prompted the Red Cross to step up its efforts to find a solution.
But the humanitarian transfer, of captured uniformed members belonging to a conventional army, from the hands of an irregular resistance force to a third country for proxy internment represented a totally new concept of POW treatment. It has also fomented a highly controversial moral and legal imbroglio among human rights activists, international jurists and the Red Cross itself.
Earlier this year the Red Cross finally managed to work out an arrangement with the resistance and the Kremlin for the transfer of Soviet prisoners to Switzerland. As a result, for the first time the Geneva-based Red Cross has found itself responsible for the holding of war captives.
The long-awaited breakthrough came toward the end of May, 1982. The transfer was the first comprehensive agreement between the Red Cross and the USSR since 1945.
In accordance with the 1949 Geneva Convention, the Red Cross promised to assume full responsibility for the prisoners for two years, or the duration of the war, which ever turned out to be shorter. The Swiss government would provide internment facilities while the Soviets paid for all costs. In return, the Red Cross would have access to Afghan prisons to visit captured mujahideen.
Two more Soviets were transferred in August followed by another two in November. The Red Cross, however, after visiting several hundred prisoners in Kabul (but not the notorious detention centers of the Khad, the Afghan security police, in the capital and other towns) were obliged to leave by the communist authorities.
At present, all seven Soviets are held at the Zugerberger military detention center and hospital. Although they are allowed relative freedom such as guarded outings into the Swiss countryside and ample television viewing, they are kept well away from the public eye and, in particular, the press. Soviet embassy officials are permitted regular visits.
European human rights activists have argued that because some of the prisoners have gone on record with anti-Soviet remarks made in interviews before the transfers, their lives are in danger if they are eventually returned to the USSR.
One of the prisoners said that he had personally seen Soviet troops ''killing innocent people, breaking the locks of houses and then looting them for souvenirs to be sent back home.'' Another bitterly condemned the Soviet intervention, calling it an ''absurd'' war, and said the Kremlin should ''reconsider its position and withdraw its troops.''
The Red Cross maintains that in principle it would never oblige a prisoner to return against his will. But at the same time, Red Cross officials point out that the Soviet POWs were informed of the agreement with the Kremlin that they would be repatriated eventually.
It is evident that the Red Cross would like to keep all doors open for continued prison transfers.
At the same time, however, some Soviet prisoners inside Afghanistan are said to be unwilling to go to Switzerland in the knowledge that they might be sent back to the USSR to an uncertain future.
Resistance circles are also demanding that the communists stick to their part of the bargain and allow the Red Cross to continue visiting Afghan prisoners.
For the moment, internment in Switzerland appears to be the only satisfactory solution for guaranteed humanitarian treatment of Soviet prisoners. But the Red Cross, and the international community, have failed to ensure that Red Cross officials be granted the right to regularly and without hinderance visit all the prisons in Afghanistan, and not just a select one or two.
As refugee and resistance testimony has shown, there is no shortage of torture chambers in Afghanistan.
One suggested possibility to satisfy all parties is to permit an organization such an Amnesty International to visit both Soviet prisoners in Switzerland as well as the Afghan prisoners in conjunction with the Red Cross.