THE Soviet Union flashed a danger sign for its support of US-led Gulf policy last weekend when its new foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, warned Americans against pursuing the destruction of Iraq. Yet on Monday, the United States sent a message of its own - downplaying it as much as possible - by postponing the summit meeting that was to have taken place in Moscow in two weeks.
President Bush is proceeding along a tightrope in his relations with the increasingly repressive Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader lionized all over Washington just last summer. By postponing the summit, Mr. Bush is putting off any serious confrontation over Soviet repression in the Baltics while the Persian Gulf war is at full tilt.
``I think everyone [in Congress] understands that the president of the United States is very upset at what's happening in the Baltics,'' says Frank Sieverts, press secretary to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But the administration has also invested heavily in President Gorbachev and needs his support in the Gulf coalition, adds Mr. Sieverts. The Soviet Union has been a key player in supporting the US effort to build an international coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The Soviets could endanger the outcome now, for example, if they were to throw their support behind a negotiated settlement with Iraq.
``Bush has to do something tricky,'' says Joshua Muravchik, a foreign policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ``He must put off the Soviets for a few months, then take a hard line.''
The White House gave three reasons for reconsidering the February summit: problems with the long-range nuclear weapons treaty (START) - the central business planned for the summit; concern that Bush should not leave the country during the heat of the Gulf war; and distress over the violent Soviet crackdown against the independence-seeking Balts.
In canceling the meeting Monday, the administration dismissed all but the practical reason for putting the meeting off. ``Our main concern is just the Persian Gulf conflict,'' said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. The concern, he said, was ``time away from home.''
No doubt it is a difficult time for the president to leave town. He has no other foreign trips currently planned, while typically he has several in planning stages. Yet few in Washington took this explanation at face value.
Relations with the Soviets have been stiffening since late November, when a treaty was signed in Paris to cut NATO and Warsaw Pact conventional forces in Central Europe.
Problems with this CFE treaty have dogged the final negotiations for START, the strategic arms reduction treaty, intended to cut long-range nuclear weapons by roughly a quarter.
The chief problem now is that the Soviets are making the required cuts, in part, by transferring three mechanized infantry divisions over to the Navy and claiming naval forces are not covered. As a British parliamentarian noted, the Soviet Navy now has more tanks than the British Army.
The problems with completing START concern matters from on-site inspections to procedures for downsizing warheads on missiles. According to Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association, the problems are only ``third-level issues.''
``I think they're the kind of problems that could be resolved in a day if there was a decision'' at the top to sign the treaty, he says.
Bush and Gorbachev will still hold their summit before the first half of 1991 is out, according to the White House. But if relations between the US and the Soviets continue to worsen, and many analysts are pessimistic about the Soviet course, then agreements such as START may only become more difficult.
``We could have missed a real opportunity,'' says Mr. Mendelsohn. ``It would have been exceedingly useful.''