MOSCOW -- Top Soviet military officials, who are following every blow struck in the Persian Gulf war, say the United States significantly underestimated the defensive and offensive capability of Iraq and is in for a long and difficult conflict.
"The Americans obviously underestimated Saddam Hussein," said Lt. Gen. German S. Starodubov, deputy chief of the main directorate of the Soviet general staff, in an interview published yesterday.
"They thought that after the first bombardments, he would either capitulate, or rush headlong into some kind of risky escapade," General Starodubov told the Communist Party weekly Glasnost. "But hardly could that be expected from an opponent who had just fought in the desert for eight years [against Iran]!"
"I would not unconditionally predict the certain defeat of Iraq on the basis of an analysis of the first days of military action," said Maj. Gen. Sergei Bogdanov, head of the general staff's Operations Research Center.
While admitting the superior strength of allied forces, he cautioned the allies against excessive optimism.
"You must not underestimate [Iraq]," he said. "Baghdad has a substantial enough arsenal to inflict appreciable damage on its enemies."
Such assessments by the Soviet brass may not be entirely objective. They may reflect resentment of reports of poor performance by Iraq's Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft and other equipment against the initial allied air strikes. Domestic opponents of the Soviet military's fat budget and political clout seized on those early reports to deride the army and charge that it had squandered the nation's wealth on useless weaponry.
On the other hand, many senior Soviet officers know Mr. Hussein's forces well as a result of years of military cooperation and arms sales.
Moreover, numerous reports illustrate the intensity of Soviet intelligence efforts to track developments in the war, which is unfolding a few hundred miles from the southern border of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Early every morning, Soviet military experts prepare a map of operations in the gulf and a report on the latest events, giving it to Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov by 6:30 a.m., said Maj. Gen. Viktor P. Shevchenko, who directs the group. The report also goes to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and other key members of the leadership.
Sitting in the white stone Defense Ministry headquarters in downtown Moscow, General Shevchenko receives moment-by-moment reports from the scene.
"Comrade general, four B-52 bombers have taken off from the base at Diego Garcia. Their target is sites on Iraqi territory. Time of takeoff, 12:30," one of a steady stream of reporting officers told him during the Glasnost interview.
General Starodubov said Soviet experts were certain that the upbeat, early reports on the success of allied air strikes were exaggerated.
"The data at our disposal permits us to be convinced by our own eyes how far from the true state of affairs were the initial, victorious declarations that flew around the world in the first days of the war," he said.
"In fact, they often bombed dummies, or storehouses where, most likely, nothing was left."
"Aviation is aviation, but until an infantryman has put his foot on the ground, it's too early to speak of any kind of real achievement of the goals established. To fight in the desert is tough. There are reports that the Americans are having quite a few equipment problems," he said.
Asked about reports in the iinternational and Soviet press that the fighting demonstrated the superiority of U.S. over Soviet military technology, General Bogdanov acknowledged that the U.S.-built Patriot missile had proven its value in knocking out Soviet-made Scuds.
But he said it was a mismatch, because the Patriot represents state-of-the-art technology, while the Scud was designed more than 30 years ago. Subsequent German improvements boosted the range of the Scud but did not improve, and may have worsened, its accuracy and other characteristics, he said.
General Bogdanov repeated earlier denials by Soviet officials of Western reports that the Soviet Union was keeping military advisers in Iraq or that it was providing secret information to Washington on Iraqi forces. While backing the West's political stance, Moscow is struggling not to be seen as a participant on either side of the war.
Military officials say, however, that they cannot rule out danger to Soviet territory and Soviet citizens as a large-scale, high-tech war continues not far from the border.
General Shevchenko said the major threat comes from bomb or missile strikes on Iraqi chemical and bacteriologic weapon supplies, or from Iraq's possible use of them against allied forces or Israel. Depending on wind and other factors, those weapons could reach the Soviet Union, he said.