MOSCOW -- The Russian republic asked the United States yesterday to recognize its independence and that of Byelarus and Ukraine, a move that in effect forces Washington to choose between President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the new commonwealth led by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev made the request to Secretary of State James A. Baker III, saying recognition would help crystallize authority in the new commonwealth and prevent a slide toward further political disintegration.
Mr. Baker, who is visiting Moscow, said the United States will consider the request. He also brought with him proposals for accelerating reduction of the estimated 27,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled in Russia, Ukraine, Byelarus and Kazakhstan.
In Kiev, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said yesterday that a new mechanism for political control over nuclear weapons would have to be worked out by the four republics.
Mr. Kravchuk told Soviet television that the four had agreed to establish a mechanism under which there would be "control over non-use," essentially a veto.
U.S. recognition of Russia's independence would end any hopes Mr. Gorbachev might have of holding together some remnant of the old union with himself at the center.
With that prospect, some U.S. officials clearly signaled for the first time that they hoped Mr. Gorbachev would either leave the stage or make an accommodation with the new commonwealth before they had no choice but to come out against him.
That was apparent in the fact that Mr. Baker, along with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, rebuked Mr. Gorbachev for the first time for criticizing Mr. Baker. Mr. Gorbachev, in a recent interview with Time magazine, took issue with Mr. Baker's assessment last week that the Soviet Union "as we know it" is finished.
Mr. Baker was more reserved in his public remarks, but Mr. Cheney said in a television interview that Mr. Gorbachev was not recognizing reality. If Mr. Gorbachev did not do so soon, the defense secretary said, the United States should abandon its neutrality in the internal power struggle and come down on the side of the new commonwealth.
"We have to be very hard-nosed about our approach, and we have to recognize reality," Mr. Cheney said on the NBC-TV program "Meet the Press," adding: "And reality is that that there has been a new commonwealth formed, that in forming that commonwealth, the republics, in effect, said, 'The center is dead, the old Soviet Union is dead, and now we've got to get on with a new organization,' and we've got to deal with that new mechanism. Reality is now being shaped primarily by Boris Yeltsin and other leaders."
Mr. Kozyrev said after meeting with Mr. Baker that he understood the delicate U.S. position and did not want to appear to be interfering in internal affairs.
Nevertheless, in a news conference with Mr. Baker after their two hours of talks in the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mr. Kozyrev said, "Basically, we do ask now for full diplomatic recognition of independent states, those which created this new commonwealth. This will help crystallize authority, which stems from the people's vote in Ukraine, Russia and Byelarus, and stop the further disintegration."
Mr. Baker, while reaffirming his standard line about not wanting to interfere in the internal affairs of the former Soviet Union, said: "We will obviously be looking at the suggestion that has been made here, just as we are now looking at a similar request from the Ukraine."
The United States already has welcomed Ukraine's independence and has said it will extend de jure recognition and open an embassy in Kiev after it is satisfied that the Ukrainian government has met certain basic U.S. principles.
The principles include destroying the republic's nuclear weapons or putting them under a single central control; agreeing to respect minorities' rights; taking some responsibility for Soviet debt; and agreeing that any border changes can come about only by negotiation.
Mr. Baker told the Russians that their adherence to those principles will determine how the United States responds to their request for recognition.
The Russian request came just a few hours after Mr. Baker landed in Moscow, carrying aboard his Air Force plane medical supplies for hospitals in Minsk, the Byelarussian capital; Yerevan, the Armenian capital; and Moscow.
Mr. Baker met first with Russia's foreign minister, and only then did he dine privately with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, an old friend.
Mr. Baker's first meeting today will be with Mr. Yeltsin in St. Catherine's Hall in the Kremlin, the room where he always has met with Mr. Gorbachev. He will meet with Mr. Gorbachev later, in a different room.