WASHINGTON -- Yesterday's move by three Soviet republics to replace central authority with a commonwealth of their own appeared to head off the Bush administration's worst nightmare.
For the administration, which has clung to the idea of a central power centered in the Kremlin, the main fear has been a Yugoslavia-like conflict between republics with the potential for nuclear war.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III reaffirmed those anxieties yesterday before Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus declared their commonwealth.
Speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," Mr. Baker said, "I think the Soviet Union as we've known it no longer exists."
He went on to express fears of a violent conflict between republics "with nuclear weapons thrown in."
The commonwealth's declaration that it would "ensure unified control" over the Soviet nuclear arsenal and recognize existing borders must have encouraged Washington.
President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia called Mr. Bush at the White House yesterday to tell him about the commonwealth agreement, but the White House declined to release details of that conversation or comment on the agreement.
"Yeltsin promised the president that he would send him additional information about the agreement and we're awaiting that information," said Bill Harlow, a spokesman for the White House.
A senior administration official said the signing of the pact is another indication that in the Soviet Union, "the centrifugal forces are right now much stronger than they ever were."
A senior State Department official said his department planned no statement until it had received and evaluated a report from its diplomats in Moscow.
In his television appearance, Mr. Baker endorsed Congress' move to spend $500 million in U.S. defense money to help dismantle the Soviet nuclear arsenal and transport food.
Though some U.S. officials routinely speak of "the former Soviet
Union," recognizing a power shift from Moscow to the republics, the Bush administration has continued to give rhetorical support to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. It also has withheld immediate recognition of Ukrainian independence.
"I think there will be, continue to be efforts to maintain some sort of a center," Mr. Baker said.
"The important thing is that they proceed in a positive and peaceful fashion, because we really do run the risk, in my view, at least, of seeing a situation created there not unlike what we have seen in Yugoslavia with nukes, nuclear weapons, thrown in, and that could be an extraordinarily dangerous situation for Europe and for the rest of the world, indeed for the United States."
Marshall Goldman, associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, had a positive view of the new commonwealth, saying it shows the three large re
publics are prepared to "cooperate on a more forthright basis."
The decision to place the commonwealth's capital in Minsk, though an insult to Mr. Gorbachev, indicates that Russia is reassuring the other two republics that it won't try to dominate the commonwealth, Mr. Goldman said.
Mr. Baker, backing Congress' decision to free up $400 million to help destroy Soviet nuclear weapons and $100 million more for food distribution, said yesterday, "I can't think of anything that is more in the national security interest of the United States than using some of our defense dollars to get the Soviets to eliminate their nuclear weapons."
Mr. Baker is expected to pursue the dismantling of nuclear weapons in a trip to Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus.