MOSCOW -- Rebuffed by international criticism, Russia yesterday retreated from its decision to link a withdrawal of troops from the Baltic states to improved conditions for Russians living in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
But Col. Gen. Boris V. Gromov, the Russian deputy defense minister, warned it was "unlikely" that all Russian soldiers would be gone by 1994, as the Baltic states demand.
Housing shortages in Russia and the immense cost of relocating troops have forced Moscow to push back its troop withdrawal plans. General Gromov predicted yesterday that the last garrison would not close until the end of 1995.
But adding a new twist to the contentious issue, he warned that the repatriation could be delayed until the end of the century, unless the Baltic states allow Russia to replenish regiments already stationed there.
"If the ban on bringing in young reinforcements for Russian troops is maintained in these states, Russian divisions could stay for another seven to eight years," he said.
Infuriated by the foot-dragging, leaders in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania vowed to present their demands for a quicker pullout to the U.N. Security Council.
Reviled as a symbol of Soviet occupation, the Russian Army has been stationed in the Baltics since Josef Stalin annexed the three republics in 1940.
The continued presence of an estimated 90,000 Russian soldiers in the region enrages many Balts, who regard the troops as a potential threat to national sovereignty.
The small republics yesterday received a boost from NATO, which urged Moscow to continue the pullout "without delay." The Council of Europe also called for the two sides to reach a "reasonable compromise."
Although they were stunned and angered by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's decision Thursday to halt the troop withdrawal, Baltic officials expressed confidence that negotiations -- and actual removal of Russian soldiers -- would soon resume.
Monvids Viksna, a spokesman for Latvia's Defense Ministry, said, "This maneuver of Yeltsin's is just a response to his internal political problems."
The Russian president is being buffeted by the surging influence of nationalist critics who accuse him of abandoning millions of ethnic Russians scattered throughout the former Soviet empire,
Mr. Yeltsin had said that his decision to halt the troop pullout was linked to his worries about violations of the human rights of Russian minorities. But Russian officials yesterday tried to separate the issues, so as to make it clear the Kremlin was not threatening the former Soviet republics.
"We are only calling on [the Baltics] to address these issues [of alleged discrimination against Russians] in a civilized manner," said Vitaly Churkin, the deputy foreign minister, adding there was no need for anyone to get "overly excited."
Sent to the Baltics to rebuild shattered cities and staff new industries after the Soviet Union absorbed the three small states in 1940, ethnic Russians now make up 30 percent of the population in Estonia and 34 percent in Latvia, according to statistics published this week in Moscow. In Lithuania, they are 9 percent.
The veteran settlers now have children and grandchildren who were born in the Baltic states and consider them home.