MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said yesterday that the Soviet Union will pull thousands of troops out of Cuba within a few months in an effort to "modernize" relations between the bankrupt ex-Communist superpower and its one-time bridgehead off the Florida coast.
Mr. Gorbachev's statement at a news conference with Secretary of State James A. Baker III was described as "sensational" by Soviet television last night, and the troops' withdrawal will remove what for Americans has been a potent symbol of the Soviet military threat for three decades.
But the pullback was inevitable, given the dire state of the Soviet economy and the shift of power from the central bureaucracy to the republics, which can have little interest in bankrolling a military presence in the distant Caribbean.
"We intend in the near future to discuss with the leadership of Cuba the question of removing the training brigades that are deployed there and carried out their tasks in the framework of their role," Mr. Gorbachev said.
Cuba did not welcome the news. The Foreign Ministry in Havana released a statement complaining that Mr. Gorbachev's remarks were not preceded by consultations or any advance warning, which constitutes inappropriate behavior."
The vagueness of Mr. Gorbachev's description of the troops' function underscored that their presence no longer makes any sense for the crumbling Soviet Union. They provide an increasingly embarrassing prop for the regime of President Fidel Castro, who is clinging fast to his Communist dictatorship even as his former Soviet patrons dismantle theirs.
There was some confusion about the number of troops involved and about whether all Soviet military personnel would be pulled out.
Mr. Gorbachev mentioned the figure 11,000, but the Tass news agency said later that "authoritative sources" put the size of the training group at 3,000 troops. Western sources had estimated the number of Soviet military and intelligence personnel in Cuba at 7,000 to 8,000.
Mr. Baker welcomed the news of the withdrawal, calling it a "very substantial gesture" that "will be very important in terms of public opinion in the United States."
Mr. Baker is the highest U.S. official to visit since the failed coup a month ago that detained Mr. Gorbachev in his Crimean dacha for three days and, in collapsing, gave a powerful push to reform.
Closing what appeared to have been warm and uncontentious talks in the Kremlin, Mr. Gorbachev gave Mr. Baker a videocassette of his appeal to the Soviet people denouncing the junta that was holding him captive. Several copies were cut up and smuggled out of the vacation villa, but the coup fell apart so quickly that the tape was never used.
Mr. Baker said he would pass the tape on to President Bush and responded by giving Mr. Gorbachev an American flag that had flown above the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 21, the day the coup failed.
In a speech to the major European human rights conference now taking place in Moscow, Mr. Baker praised democratic reform here, declaring that "no one is moving forward more vigorously than the peoples of the Soviet Union."
For the peoples of this land, this is truly democracy's season," he said. "And with you, the American people rejoice in its coming."
The secretary of state is making the rounds of a number of key leaders, starting yesterday with Mr. Gorbachev and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. He will also be seeing Russian Prime Minister Ivan S. Silayev, who said yesterday that he was resigning as head of the Soviet transitional government, and new KGB chief Vadim Bakatin, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak, Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.