Nearly four years after Mikhail Gorbachev began his policy of greater openness, Westerners still search the Soviet press for subtle hints about what is going on in the Kremlin.

Close reading of an article buried in the inside pages of Sept. 16 editions of the main Soviet military newspaper warned Red Army officers that civilians would be giving them more orders - a strong hint that Gorbachev soon would be announcing troop cuts.Two weeks later, Gorbachev consolidated his power in the Kremlin. And on Dec. 7 he announced a decision that had been opposed by the military, a 10 percent reduction in the Soviet armed forces, including withdrawal of 50,000 soldiers from Eastern Europe.

One Kremlin-watcher is the former head of the U.S. government's super-secret National Security Agency, ret. Lt. Gen. William Odom. He sees a strong link between the Kremlin shake-up, in which Gorbachev demoted his conservative rival Yegor Ligachev, and announcement of the troop cuts.

At the same time Gorbachev announced the troop cuts, Kremlin spokesmen confirmed the resignation of a leading military opponent of unilateral Soviet reductions, Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, the chief of the Soviet General Staff.

Both Ligachev and Akhromeyev made the mistake of publicly contradicting Gorbachev, and they paid the price.

In July, Ligachev had reasserted the class basis of international relations, undercutting Gorbachev's bid to mend fences with the West. And in that same month Akhromeyev told a Pentagon news conference that the Soviets would not cut their forces unless the West did likewise.

Both statements have assumed greater importance in retrospect than they were accorded at the time in the West.

Odom, who published an article on "Soviet Military Doctrine" in the winter edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, said in a telephone interview it is not yet clear whether Gorbachev will be able to change the deployment of Red Army troops sufficiently to reduce Western anxiety about Soviet offensive military capability.

"I am waiting with bated breath to see whether Gorbachev can make it stick," Odom said in a telephone interview. "The situation as I see it is that the lines are drawn on the military issue between the General Staff and Gorbachev's reformers."

Gorbachev and his civilian allies realize that the enormous sums the Kremlin spends on defense are helping to cripple the rest of the economy.

"Today's Soviet forces are so large that one must ask why they have been created and deployed," wrote Odom. "They overshadow not only U.S. forces but also exceed the combined forces within the Western alliance structure."

Indications that Soviet civilian reformers were prevailing came in the Sept. 16 article in "Red Star," the Defense Ministry newspaper. The article set off alarm bells for several reasons, among them the identity of the author, A. Kokoshin, a think-tank scholar who for more than a year has been leading a rhetorical assault against the pre-eminence of military officers in formulating national security policy.

Although the Red Army is answerable to the Kremlin's ruling Politburo, lower-level civilians previously had not been allowed a say in national security policies. The Soviet defense minister and his aides have traditionally been uniformed military officers, in contrast to the United States, where the top Defense Department officials are civilians and national security issues are publicly debated in Congress and the press.