WASHINGTON — Washington--.FIVE YEARS later, those who doubted Mikhail Gorbachev's ambitious plans for perestroika could be real are LTC feeling less embarrassed about their skepticism.
Most Americans who would be entitled to say ''I told you so'' if Mr. Gorbachev failed are starting 1991 rooting for him. But what's happening in Moscow now raises questions of whether the United States has been wise to base its policy so completely on perestroika's success.
Mr. Gorbachev is besieged. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation 10 days ago deprived him of his closest ally. Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov's heart attack this week took away another political friend. In Russia proper, as well as in the outlying republics, nationalists defy Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to retain central control. The consumer economy is in shambles.
Though besieged, Mr. Gorbachev is determined to survive. The danger is that the price of his survival may be collusion with the KGB and the armed forces and a turn back toward the hard-handed repression that prevented anything approaching glasnost or perestroika for the first 67 years of Communist rule.
Promptly after Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov fed such speculation by criticizing some of President Gorbachev's reform plans and urging a return to central planning and state ownership. He said the secret police were awaiting orders to help stave off crisis. He also echoed Cold-War rhetoric by accusing the CIA of trying to destabilize the Soviet Union, and asserted that Western food aid was suspect.
This week, Mr. Kryuchkov backed away from that line. Apparently on Mr. Gorbachev's instructions, he said he had been misunderstood, that ''we're not going to shift into reverse.''
But on the same day, the commander of the Soviet Baltic fleet told the Congress of People's Deputies that sailors and soldiers in the Baltic republics were being shot at, firebombed and otherwise menaced. ''The extremists are creating conditions so that servicemen will have to use arms to defend their families and children,'' said Adm. Vitaly Ivanov. Just such charges have been made to justify past Soviet crackdowns, within and beyond the country's borders.
When was the KGB chief expressing his true thoughts -- when he criticized perestroika and the West, or when he recanted under orders? Is it coincidence that his first, ominous remarks were so much in tune with what Admiral Ivanov said a few days later? Can it be coincidence that these things came just after Mr. Shevardnadze departed with a warning that ''a dictatorship is approaching?''
Opponents have challenged Mr. Gorbachev's support of the United Nations against Iraq in the Persian Gulf. As the crisis there has developed, that means support of the United States. It was worked out largely by Mr. Shevardnadze with Secretary of State James Baker. Opponents also have challenged Mr. Gorbachev's decision to give in so quickly to the peaceful revolution in Germany and Eastern Europe.
Mr. Shevardnadze called some of his critics ''lads -- boys in colonel's epaulets,'' but they would not have upset him so if they were only inconsequential field-grade officers.
Mr. Gorbachev may need the KGB and the armed forces to hold his country together. He may need them to protect him from a political coup. Indeed, he may think he has to pacify them to prevent their leading a coup.
He cannot pacify them by hanging on to Eastern Europe; it is too late. But some of Mr. Shevardnadze's moves toward ending the Cold War are reversible. While the KGB and the army tightened (( screws at home, a new foreign minister could tilt Soviet policy away from the U.S. in the Gulf situation. He could put the brakes on arms-control agreements; at this stage, the Soviet side still holds major advantages in conventional arms.
Under pressure, Mr. Gorbachev could change the domestic and international climate so drastically that the planned drawdown of American forces in Europe would be postponed; talk of a peace dividend would be forgotten; this country would be embroiled again in debate over Midgetman and Star Wars.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the great survivor, may indeed maneuver himself out of this crisis. If not, his choices are limited: to call on the KGB and the army, or to resign on principle, as his friend the foreign minister has done. That is why so many Americans who scoffed in 1985 are pulling for him now.