WASHINGTON -- President Bush told Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday that he was ready to work with him up to a point but would do nothing to undercut the "closest possible relationship" with Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Mr. Bush devoted an unusual hour and 40 minutes to his meeting with Russia's first popularly elected president, who left citing four economic and commercial areas in which the United States and his republic would work more closely.
But the firm White House message was that Mr. Yeltsin should continue his recent cooperation with the Soviet president, a message the Russian leader somewhat grudgingly appeared to accept.
"We have been heartened and encouraged by President Yeltsin's commitment to democratic values and free-market principles, and we look forward to working with him," Mr. Bush said in a joint Rose Garden appearance shortly after Mr. Yeltsin's arrival.
"But at the same time -- I want to be very clear about this -- the United States will continue to maintain the closest possible official relationship with the Soviet government of President Gorbachev. Indeed, in just the few minutes we've had inside, President Yeltsin has told me that he and President Gorbachev are in very close contact and working cooperatively together to achieve these ends.
"Let's not forget that it was President Gorbachev's courageous policies of glasnost and perestroika that were the pivotal factors enabling us to end the Cold War and make Europe whole and free," Mr. Bush said.
In response, Mr. Yeltsin praised the reduction in the U.S.-Soviet military confrontation. "And I shall seek to develop this achievement together with President Gorbachev."
But Mr. Yeltsin, who has criticized Mr. Gorbachev for halfhearted reforms and earlier backsliding, noted pointedly that Russia, representing 70 percent of the Soviet gross national product, would "not allow any reversion" in democratization.
Brent Scowcroft, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, said the United States was prepared to cooperate with Russia in areas where the still-unratified union treaty gave republics authority. "But we will, of course, deal with the center as the government of the Soviet Union."
This message differed sharply from the attitude among some on Capitol Hill, where Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, in particular, pressed for closer contact with the republics and less direct dealing with the central government.
But it was a message that Mr. Yeltsin appeared to accept as early as his arrival Tuesday, when he sought a "direct dialogue" ++ in the framework of strengthened U.S.-Soviet ties.
And in an appearance earlier yesterday at the National Press Club, he took Mr. Gorbachev's side in his power struggle with Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov, a hard-liner, saying that Mr. Pavlov would fail in his bid to take control over certain ministries -- from the Soviet leader.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Mr. Yeltsin outlined four areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation: processing and storage of agricultural products; training of managerial personnel in the United States; setting up joint transportation companies as part of a "direct commercial dialogue between America and Russia," along with the possible establishment of a joint Russian-U.S. privatization bank; and converting defense industries to civilian uses.
The commercial relationship "will take place with the consent of Mikhail Gorbachev, so this will not put him in an awkward position," he said.
But Mr. Scowcroft put a more tentative cast on the joint projects, saying that "all this has to be sorted out and looked at in light of an ongoing ratification debate" over the union treaty. He stressed, "This is not a program against the center."
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin told Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and other Pentagon officials that he wanted the Kremlin to retain control of the military but to give the republics control of defense industries.
Mr. Scowcroft said the Russian plan to slash contributions to the Kremlin budget could affect Soviet military spending.
Mr. Bush's determination to not to change the superpowers' relationship comes despite the close identity of views between his administration and Mr. Yeltsin on such issues as private property rights, the Baltics and Soviet aid to Cuba.
Mr. Yeltsin strongly backed freedom for the breakaway republics, insisting that the union could not be held together with chains. Earlier, he said that Mr. Gorbachev could not hold the entire union together.