WASHINGTON -- Behind President Bush's caution in dealing with the rapidly shifting Soviet crisis lies a series of dangers and dilemmas involving security, territory and personalities, according to administration officials and regional experts.
Question marks range from continuing confidence in Soviet nuclear safeguards to protection of ethnic minorities in a country where central control is fast giving way to local autonomy.
Uncertainty pervades U.S. policy as events outpace analysis daily, making rapid realignment of the U.S. approach difficult.
Robert S. Strauss, the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, briefed Mr. Bush at his Kennebunkport, Maine, vacation home yesterday on his meetings with the two men attempting to share power in the Soviet Union -- Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin -- then told reporters, "I don't think anyone knows what the end product is going to look like. They don't know, so certainly I don't know."
The Defense Department said yesterday that it did not know whether the huge Soviet army would be under central or local command; how the Soviets' mobile short-range tactical nuclear weapons would be distributed; or how control over the long-range strategic weapons -- 80 percent of them in the Russian republic, the rest divided among the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan -- might be exercised if the Soviet Union breaks up.
"I don't think anybody in this building knows . . . what the relationship is going to be between the central government and the republics if they go independent," said Pete Williams, the Pentagon spokesman.
The political uncertainty is most dramatically reflected in the U.S. decision to hang back from the international race to recognize the independence of the three Baltic states. Yesterday, the 12 members of the European Community became the latest to follow the example of Mr. Yeltsin's Russian republic in recognizing the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The United States has never recognized the Baltics' annexation by the Soviets in 1940, but Mr. Bush still wants Mr. Gorbachev to address the issue of their independence first, a move that could come by the end of this week.
Officials said yesterday that they expect the administration to recognize the Baltics' sovereignty by Friday, either because the Soviet parliament would have approved the move by then or because the central authorities would have signaled their approval of U.S. recognition.
Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Strauss suggested an announcement would be forthcoming Friday.
Their comments were described by another senior official as part of an attempt to press Mr.Gorbachev to let the Baltics go.
'We're telling Gorbachev we don't want to get out in front of you on this, but we are running out of patience,' the official said.
The White House had expected some kind of signal in support of Baltic independence from Mr. Gorbachev on Monday but it failed to materialize.
Mr. Bush wants Mr. Gorbachev to move first primarily because he strongly believes it will be much easier for the Baltics to function as sovereign nations if they have the cooperation of the Soviet government, on such issues as energy.
But the administration is also trying to prod Mr. Gorbachev into taking the bold steps they belive necessary to save the central government.
'We're try to tell Gorbachev it's time to move, and that there isn't anything he could do that would help him more than release the Baltics the senior adminstration added.
Because the U.S. has never recognized the forced incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, Mr. Bush is expected to describe his annoucement Friday as a decision to begin the process of opening formal diplomatic relations with the Baltics.
The time pressure on him to do that is largely domestic, says a top Bush aide, who noted the rush of other nations taking that step has increased the pressure.
Central to Mr. Bush's wary approach on the Baltics was his commitment to Mr. Gorbachev, the man still trying to control the forces that threaten to destroy the Soviet Union.
"When I saw Mr. Bush's hesitancy, I thought it was largely a measure to protect his relationship with Gorbachev in the center more than any other concern," said Theodore G. Hopf, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
Douglas Seay, analyst of European affairs for the Heritage Foundation, said, "It's pretty clear that Bush remains committed to Gorbachev, despite the evidence he is no longer the dominant personality in the Soviet Union. He has a long-term commitment to this individual, as well as to the Soviet Union.
"I don't think that the president has yet realized that the Soviet Union doesn't have a future. What is bad, I think, is that his concept about what is happening there is out of sync with reality."