WASHINGTON -- President Bush offered a vigorous defense yesterday of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's efforts to reform the Soviet Union and told leaders of the three Baltic republics that they would have to find the route to independence through negotiations with Moscow.
At the same time, however, Mr. Bush said he hadn't yet made up his mind on a Kremlin request for $1.5 billion in credit guarantees to help buy U.S. grain, and he offered the Baltic leaders what they consider "de facto recognition" of their independence by meeting with them together in the Oval Office.
The contrast reflected what administration officials say is the complex relationship the United States now has with President Gorbachev, whom it wants to support in some respects but discourage in others -- particularly his oppressive crackdowns in the Baltic republics as they pursue independence.
"I don't want to see a breach in a relationship that is very strong, that's served us extraordinarily well in recent times," including the Persian Gulf war, Mr. Bush said at a news conference yesterday morning.
"The Soviet Union is fighting difficult economic times, but I am not about to forget history and what [Mr. Gorbachev] did in terms of Eastern Europe, what he's done in terms of perestroika and glasnost," he said. "The accomplishments of Mikhail Gorbachev . . . are enormous."
The president said the United States "ought to try and help" the Soviets by sending food when "people are hungry or need support."
But he has been reluctant to approve the grain deal because Mr. Gorbachev hasn't been able to establish that the Soviet Union can repay the money loaned to buy the grain from U.S. farmers -- as U.S. law requires.
Further, administration officials say Mr. Bush is concerned about the economic effects of dumping U.S.-financed grain on a market that is struggling to develop on its own.
Regarding the three Baltic republics, Mr. Bush repeated the standard line that the United States "will never recognize" their forceful incorporation into the Soviet Union five decades ago.
But when the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania pressed him on the issue later in the day, he promised only to take up their concerns with Mr. Gorbachev when the two leaders meet at a summit that may be scheduled within the next few months.
Ivars Godmanis, prime minister of Latvia, said Secretary of State James A. Baker III had earlier advised the Baltic leaders "to find some mechanism" by which their republics could be independent but which would also allow the Soviet Union to "save face."
This first meeting of the three leaders together with Mr. Bush was described by Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis as a "symbolic" breakthrough that indicated U.S. policy was slowly changing to become more supportive of their independence drive.
"But someone can say it's changing too slow," he added. "Events are going faster."