WASHINGTON -- The stunning resignation of Eduard A. Shevardnadze was seen here yesterday as a clear blow to the Bush administration that could affect not only the newly improved U.S.-Soviet relationship but undermine the coalition in the Persian Gulf as well.
Most administration officials as well as outside experts said not enough was known yet about the circumstances of Mr. Shevardnadze's departure as Soviet foreign minister or about his possible successor to make any firm predictions on how Soviet foreign policy might be affected.
But most agreed that the close personal relationship between Mr. Shevardnadze and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, as well as Mr. Shevardnadze's strong views on democratic reform in his country and on the importance of U.S.-Soviet cooperation, would be difficult to replace.
"Clearly it's a setback," said Tyrus W. Cobb, a Soviet expert for the Center on Strategic and International Studies.
He called Mr. Shevardnadze the "principal force" driving the liberalization of Soviet international policy, including acquiescence to the anti-Communist movement in Eastern Europe, endorsement of the reunification of Germany, the shaping of several new arms control agreements and the decision to side against Iraq, a longtime Soviet ally, in the current conflict over its invasion of Kuwait.
Perhaps more troubling, analysts and diplomats said, was Mr. Shevardnadze's dramatic warning about President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's drive toward a dictatorship in the Soviet Union and how a victory of conservative elements there might affect world affairs.
"If Gorbachev is leaning toward making common cause with the old institutions of coercion, one has to allow for the possibility that he may lean toward them in foreign and security policy," observed Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution.
Mr. Baker acknowledged that "Minister Shevardnadze's resignation and warning . . . has to be taken seriously. . . . He was in the forefront of the new thinking in foreign policy and democratization at home."
While the United States is "pleased that President Gorbachev has said that there will be no change in Soviet foreign policy," Mr. Baker noted President Bush's view that "our new relationship with the Soviet Union depends on its continuing commitment to democratization and reform."
The White House said it expected no immediate impact on U.S.-Soviet relations because the policies now in place are essentially those of Mr. Gorbachev.
Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., a leading member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the "continuity and the momentum" of the U.S.-Soviet relationship would almost surely suffer because of Mr. Shevardnadze's absence, however.
As for the gulf crisis, administration officials said the surprise resignation was not likely to be the disaster it could have been had Mr. Shevardnadze left before the United Nations Security Council adopted its recent resolution authorizing the use of force if Iraq does not leave Kuwait by Jan. 15.
"But the major Soviet contribution to the gulf effort has passed," a White House official said. "They've already said they are not going to send troops to the gulf; that isn't likely to change. And we don't anticipate needing any more U.N. resolutions."
There is a danger, however, that Mr. Bush's message to Iraq that he is ready to use military force may be undermined if Gorbachev aide Yevgeny Primakov is named to take Mr. Shevardnadze's place, as some have suggested.
Mr. Primakov has said repeatedly he would like to find a way for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to save face, a notion Mr. Bush rejects.
U.S. diplomats, however, were reluctant to accept grim predictions yet.
"We know this is not good news, but whether it's a catastrophe or not is hard to tell," said one official. "Right now, we see it as more of an inconvenience, and sort of sad because he was such a good friend."