MOSCOW -- With the Soviet Union's existence threatened by economic disintegration and republican nationalism, Mikhail S. Gorbachev is showing signs of veering from his reformist path and retreating to the traditional triad on which Soviet totalitarianism was based: the Communist Party, the Soviet army and the KGB.
Whether his retreat is tactical or strategic is a matter of heated debate. Mr. Gorbachev often has zigged to the right, the better to zag to the left a little later. The overall result of his six years in power has been the steady dismantling of the world Josef V. Stalin built.
But in the past three weeks, under heavy pressure from conservatives, Mr. Gorbachev has:
* Appointed a hard-line duo to the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, whose riot troops are used to keep domestic order.
* Toughened his rhetoric against Soviet republics that don't want to sign his proposed union treaty.
* Called on the Communist Party as the main lobbyist for and guarantor of the signing of the treaty.
* Directed Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov and KGB chief Vladimir A. Kryuchkov to make dramatic televised statements warning of tough action against radicals and nationalists.
"It seems to me that what is happening is a gradual, militarized coup d'etat," sociologist and pollster Yuri Levada told Moscow News last week. "Not a military coup, but a militarized coup, with conservative forces trying to rely on the army," Mr. Levada said. "The word 'creeping' is appropriate here: The coup is taking place not with a single blow, but is being carried out by a series of apparently parliamentary acts. Perhaps the president has his own goals in this game, but he is increasingly becoming its hostage."
The words of Mr. Kryuchkov Tuesday night capped the growing impression that a collective fist was being clenched in the Kremlin.
If the Cold War is over, someone forgot to tell the KGB chief. He spoke darkly of "moral and material support from abroad" for radical Soviet political movements. He said a "secret war" was being waged against the Soviet Union by foreign espionage agencies, though he tactfully declined to name just which countries he had in mind.
"Today the question has been asked: Will our great power be or will it not be?" Mr. Kryuchkov asked. "There is no doubt that any honest, sensible citizen of the Soviet state will give an unambiguous answer -- we will be!
"Chekisti have made their choice," he went on, using the romantic-heroic Soviet term for KGB agents. "We speak decidedly for the renewal of all our life -- in the name of the flourishing of our socialist fatherland, in the interest of the workers, so that our great union takes a worthy place in the world community."
Mr. Kryuchkov said the KGB sees its job as defending the Soviet Constitution, including the "social system" proclaimed in it and the unity of the state.
But that already archaic constitution endorses state ownership as opposed to private and poses the building of communism as society's highest goal. Likewise, "state unity" takes no account of the declarations of sovereignty or independence passed this year by democratically elected parliaments in all 15 Soviet republics.
Police chiefs everywhere talk tough. But what caught people's attention was not only Mr. Kryuchkov's anachronistic rhetoric. It was also that the KGB chief, like General Yazov two weeks earlier, had been asked to make the statement by Mr. Gorbachev.
Moreover, groping for a solution to the country's most serious problem, the food crisis, Mr. Gorbachev took a hard right turn. He stated that he resolutely opposed private ownership of land and boosted the role of the KGB in fighting supply "sabotage," implying the problem was enemies of the state rather than an economic system dominated by the state.
The Soviet president has put in a good word for the military recently as well. Krasnaya Zvezda, the army newspaper, reported last week that he had intervened to oppose a proposed cut of 23 percent in military research and development funding.
Two years ago, foreign diplomats focused on the behind-the-scenes clashes between the reformist Mr. Gorbachev and such conservatives as former Politburo member Yegor K. Ligachev and former KGB chief Viktor M. Chebrikov. Today, Mr. Gorbachev and the most powerful conservatives seem to be allied, even if the alliance is uneasy.
Likewise, if a year ago journalists hung on every pronouncement of the radical Interregional Deputies Group, now they pay closer attention to a different parliamentary faction -- the conservative Soyuz (Union).
What has changed? Two years ago, the overriding political question was whether fundamental political change could take place at all, and the radicals were the engine of change. Today, the question is whether political change is flying out of control, and the conservatives represent the brakes.