WASHINGTON. — Washington At least three views circulate in Washington today concerning who governs the Soviet Union and to what broad ends. Each has important implications for U.S. policy and for the Soviet future.
Each of the three offers a plausible interpretation of the same conditions -- repression in the Baltics; the imposition of new centralized economic controls by Moscow; the disappearance of leading reformers from Gorbachev's inner circle; the new
obstacles to arms agreements, and continued Soviet cooperation with regard to the gulf war.
In one view, it is believed that Mikhail Gorbachev has already lost control of policy to the Soviet military establishment. These observers point to the growing role of the military, not only in the Baltics, but in other important aspects of internal and foreign affairs. They note that the Kremlin's new plan for controlling ''economic crime'' gives such sweeping police functions to the military that critics are charging it is tantamount to martial law.
Recent unexpected and unexplained shifts in the Soviet position, leading to deadlocks in arms negotiations in Geneva and Vienna, are also seen as signaling that generals, rather than foreign ministers, are now in charge of this important domain. Increased military influence, U.S. officials speculate, may also have precipitated the resignation of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Mr. Gorbachev himself has not resigned, they further speculate, because he is useful to the military and willing to be used -- as when he affirmed that the new police functions are a legitimate expression of the president's emergency powers.
A competing scenario insists that Mr. Gorbachev is still in charge. In this view, his power is not absolute. Like almost all rulers in almost all systems, he must take account of the interests and demands of various groups in Soviet society.
But his power is supreme, these theorists argue. And what happens happens with his permission. When two dozen people were killed in Latvia and Lithuania, it happened not because Mr. Gorbachev ordered their deaths, but because he sent Soviet troops to Latvia and Lithuania to restore order and left it to local commanders to determine how authority should be re-established.
When he denies personal knowledge of this ''tragedy,'' they say, he is seeking to limit his responsibility and the political damage to his reputation. He is not demonstrating that he lacked power to influence events.
In this view, Mr. Gorbachev's tactical flexibility is as great as his power. He tries to find solutions to Soviet problems, remembering Lenin's dictum that realism often requires two steps forward and one step back. In that spirit, much as he made limited moves toward a free market to end economic stagnation, he now restores central controls in an effort to offset spreading economic disorganization and total economic breakdown. Mr. Gorbachev uses the military as he uses his advisers -- when he needs them, to achieve goals that he seeks.
Some of those who think Mr. Gorbachev is in charge have confidence in his ultimate motives and goals. They believe that whatever the specific zigs and zags, he seeks a government based on law rather than force, a productive economy and a good relationship with the West. They think the United States should support him.
Others believe repression in the Baltics and elsewhere is the only logical outcome of Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to reform, but preserve communism. Persons holding this view deny that the U.S. and Western Europe should help Mr. Gorbachev in any fashion.
A third scenario depicts a struggle for control which pits Mr. Gorbachev and the reformers against the military and various other partisans of authoritarian government. They see flip-flops in policy as evidence of this tug-of-war.
Each of these scenarios carries its own prediction for the Soviet future. If the military is already on top, one can expect authoritarian government and current borders to be maintained by force for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely, however, that a serious effort would be made to restore totalitarianism or communist ideology to their former status.
If Mr. Gorbachev is in charge and is loyal to glasnost and perestroika, he can be expected to relax repression in the Baltics and proceed -- perhaps more cautiously -- with limited democratization and measured steps toward self-determination. If he remains in charge while abandoning reform, one can expect that he will govern in cooperation with the military in an authoritarian system.
If a genuine struggle for power persists, disorganization may be expected to grow, with some constituent parts of the Soviet Union successfully breaking away from cen- tral control.
Eventually someone will succeed in establishing authority and end the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
For now, it is impossible to predict the future of the Soviet Union -- in part because adequate evidence is lacking, and in part because this is the world's first experience with the transformation of a totalitarian state from within.
0 Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.