KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- The White House spent much of yesterday peering through the fog of swiftly moving events in the Soviet Union, hoping to discover the "true" character of restored President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
President Bush and other U.S. officials said they believe that the failure of the conservative coup against Mr. Gorbachev should now free him to pursue more vigorously the radical economic reforms favored by the West and by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Although Mr. Bush lifted a brief freeze on the mostly technical economic assistance already extended to the Soviets yesterday, his aides said that there would be no major cash forthcoming until the reforms are put in place.
Mr. Bush also made clear in comments to reporters that he expects Mr. Gorbachev to be sharing power more broadly with the republics and that the United States will increase its separate consultations with the republican leaders.
The U.S. president also prodded Mr. Gorbachev on opening negotiations with the Baltic states, expressing the hope that "recent events will speed the day when you have an agreed path set out of independence."
But administration officials say they are puzzled and confused by some steps Mr. Gorbachev has taken so far, particularly his appointment of Gen. Mikhail A. Moiseyev as defense minister.
General Moiseyev, the senior commanding officer of Soviet armed forces, was reported by some sources as cooperating in the effort to oust Mr. Gorbachev.
That information was passed to Secretary of State James A. Baker III in Brussels on Wednesday by Alexander N. Yakovlev, a former top aide to Mr. Gorbachev, White House officials said.
Another senior administration official described General Moiseyev's position during the coup as "ambivalent" at best.
"I wouldn't want that guy behind me in a dark hall now," he added.
The White House had hoped that Mr. Gorbachev would take advantage of the moment and seize firm control of the the agencies from which the plotters sprung, including the military, the Interior Ministry and the KGB.
But so far, the Soviet leader seems to be proceeding very cautiously, U.S. officials observed.
Mr. Bush refused to become embroiled in the Moiseyev debate, saying: "It's up to them who the head of their defense department is and who will be the next [military] chief of staff."
But he noted that the United States "will hold back a little on military-to-military contacts until we see this sort out."
Mr. Bush, who has developed a personal affection for Mr. Gorbachev, is inclined to view him as a fundamentally good man "who deserves credit for a mountain of reform," a senior adviser said.
"But the hesitation is that he's moved back and forth over the last year -- we assume to make political gains with the conservatives. Now we ought to see a true picture of what he really wants to do."
The White House is also watching closely to see how Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin strike a new power balance in a relationship in which the Russian president is considered to be greatly strengthened.
"So far, it's all very confused the way it's come down," a top Bush aide observed.
Officials in Washington said they expected a shift in power from the center to the provinces as a result of the republics' key role in countering the coup attempt. Mr. Gorbachev is widely seen as assuming a more titular role while Mr. Yeltsin is likely to exercise growing political power and influence.
The officials pointed out that the Russian republic did not openly challenge the plotters by itself. Strong opposition also surfaced in other republics, including the Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
"There were a lot of republic leaders in addition to Yeltsin who really stood up and made really strong statements and contributions in this campaign," said one State Department official. "Naturally, that gives them some possibility of gaining power in the future."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the United States had already dealt with both central and republic officials on various levels. How the future relationship was balanced would depend "on how the Soviet Union itself decides to allocate those kind of economic powers. . . ."
"We will continue to deal with both levels, depending on what the business is that we have to conduct."
Soviet Ambassador Viktor Kompletkov, asked whether he was concerned about the prospect of a shift of emphasis by the Bush administration from the central government to the Russian republic, replied at a news conference:
"It's a rather tricky question just to blame the administration to which I am accredited. . . . It's a sort of a two-track policy taken by the United States administration some time ago. So far we did not have no objections to this policy."
As Mr. Bush proceeded determinedly on with his vacation, boating for hours in the morning and returning to the golf links in the afternoon, his administration was on the lookout for clues of what will happen next with the Soviets.
The president spoke by telephone for a third time Wednesday night to Mr. Yeltsin, who called to report on Mr. Gorbachev's return to Moscow. Mr. Baker also kept up his high-level contacts and reported on them to the president over lunch as the two watched about a half-hour of Mr. Gorbachev's lengthy news conference.
Robert S. Strauss, the newly arrived U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, has also been providing a steady stream of intelligence to the president, officials said.
Mr. Strauss is still expected to return to the United States next week, but he may formally present his credentials before then.