WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is prepared t postpone indefinitely the summit meeting scheduled next month between President Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to demonstrate U.S. displeasure at the Soviet crackdown in the Baltics, officials said yesterday.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III reportedly informed Soviet Foreign Minister Aleksandr A. Bessmertnykh at a late afternoon meeting here of the administration's readiness to cancel the summit.
Administration officials held open the possibility that the Soviet foreign minister might bring word of a change in policy toward the Baltics or new concessions on snagged arms control negotiations that would make it possible for Mr. Bush to attend the summit, which had been scheduled for Feb. 11-13 in Moscow.
Failing such a change, a formal announcement of the postponement is expected to be made tomorrow after Mr. Bessmertnykh meets with President Bush at the White House.
Mr. Bessmertnykh, who told the Soviet news agency Tass before he left Moscow that "difficulties have emerged" in U.S.-Soviet relations, was not considered likely to be bringing the kind of dramatic news needed to dissuade the administration from cancelling the summit.
On his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Mr. Bessmertnykh appeared prepared for a postponement of the summit but said he expected progress on the nuclear arms talks.
"I'm optimistic about the necessity to have a summit," Reuters quoted him as saying, "but we shall discuss the timing and circumstances for it."
On strategic arms reduction talks (START), he said "We shall be able to solve some of the problems on strategic arms reduction."
The foreign minister also urged restraint upon American forces fighting in the Persian Gulf to avoid excessive damage both to Iraq and to the U.S. military.
At a joint press conference following their two-hour talk, Mr. Bessmertnykh said that what the United States had done so far in the gulf war was in "complete accord" with United Nations resolutions. But he added: "There may be a danger of the conflict going more in the direction of the destruction of the country of Iraq and in the direction of more casualties on both sides."
Mr. Bush and his foreign policy advisers have been wrestling for weeks with the dilemma of how to respond to the violent crackdown by Soviet troops on the independence drives in Lithuania and Latvia.
A senior administration official said Thursday that, while there was grave concern about Mr. Gorbachev's apparent swing back to the Soviet Union's earlier repressive era, it wasn't clear whether this was a temporary setback or a permanent reversal. Mr. Bush was still eager to find ways to encourage political reforms, the official said.