WASHINGTON -- The United States and the Soviet Union, citing the gulf war and lingering problems holding up a long-range weapons treaty, announced yesterday that the superpower summit planned for Feb. 11-13 would be postponed until later in the first half of this year.
Their joint statement omitted any mention of the Soviet crackdown in the Baltics, one of the key factors previously cited by the United States for a possible postponement. U.S. officials said later, however, that this was one of the reasons, although not the main motivation.
"By mutual agreement, Presidents Bush and [Mikhail S.] Gorbachev will be rescheduling their summit in Moscow, originally planned for February, to a later date in the first half of this year," the statement said.
"The gulf war makes it inappropriate for President Bush to be away from Washington. In addition, work on the START treaty will require additional time. Both presidents look forward to setting an exact summit date as soon as it becomes feasible to do so."
The announcement was made at the White House by U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh after a meeting with President Bush.
Mr. Baker said Soviet actions in the Baltics were discussed "at quite some length" both in the meeting with the president and in his own sessions with the Soviet foreign minister, who was ambassador to Washington until a few weeks ago.
"We have made our substantial concerns known to the Soviet Union in a substantial way," Mr. Baker said.
He said he "would certainly hope" that the Soviet Union was not drifting anew toward dictatorship. "As the minister has explained it to us, it is not the intention of the leadership in the Soviet Union," Mr. Baker said.
President Bush repeatedly has urged the Soviets to avoid using force in the Baltics, and he was urged last week by some members of Congress to postpone the summit as a show of concern.
Mr. Bessmertnykh described recent actions in the Baltics as regrettable and urged that the Soviet leadership not be judged by those actions, a U.S. official said.
"Obviously we're not taking that as a reason not to worry; we're very worried," the official said.
While the Baltics were "in the back of everyone's mind," the overriding reason for delaying the summit was that the president, as one official put it, "did not feel that this time was appropriate to spend up to a week" traveling to the Soviet Union in the middle of a war.
"If the Baltics had never happened, the summit would have been postponed," the official said. The statement indicated that Mr. Bush planned to remain in Washington for the duration of the gulf war, despite his assertion last Friday that "life goes on."
Recent Soviet statements indicate that the United States also might not have been able to count on the Soviets to give a wholehearted backing for the way the United States is prosecuting the war.
While standing behind the United Nations resolutions and the need to force Iraq out of Kuwait, Mr. Bessmertnykh warned anew yesterday: "There is a danger which could be brought up by the logics of a war, of a military conflict, which may not be predicted or controlled. So we've got to be careful to know that such a danger exists and to do the best we could to avoid it."
Even Mr. Baker admitted that the problems with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty said to be holding up the summit were largely technical.
Experts say these include ways of monitoring the final assembly of U.S. and Soviet missiles to see how many each side is producing; procedures for assuring access to broadcast measurements for flight tests; on-site inspection of the U.S. B-2 bomber; and ways of compensating each side for reducing the number of warheads on a missile.
"This is Chicken Little stuff," said Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association. "It's clear there wasn't a political will" to wrap up the agreement now, he said.
This, Mr. Mendelsohn said, stems from internal conservative pressure on Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev.
Mr. Baker voiced hope of completing the treaty by the end of February.
The intention of rescheduling the summit for the first half of this year, he said, did not mean U.S. officials were necessarily certain the war would be over by then.
"If the gulf war is the reason for postponing it, and the gulf war is still continuing then, I suppose we would have to look at the situation at that time," Mr. Baker said.