WASHINGTON — AS the three Baltic republics move inexorably toward complete independence, the Bush administration is playing it cautious.American officials gave strong indications last weekend that the United States would soon grant Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia full diplomatic recognition, complete with ambassadors and trade relations separate from the Soviet Union; but the administration pulled back soon after. The snag, it seems, is that the central Soviet parliament deferred a decision on Baltic independence until next week. The US has insisted it will take its cue from the Soviet government - and not just Boris Yeltsin's Russian Republic, which has already recognized the three nations' freedom. "Why wait?" asks a congressional expert on the USSR. "I sense President Bush has a lingering sympathy for [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev." Since the beginning of last week's coup attempt against President Gorbachev, Mr. Bush has responded with caution and come out ahead. Not certain of what had happened in the early going, he did not immediately condemn the apparent coup. But when the power grab failed, the US still emerged a hero as the leader of the coalition that rallied world opinion against the junta. "It's prudent to be in the mainstream," says Milan Svec, a former Czechoslovakian diplomat who is a fellow at the US Institute of Peace. "In the long run, of course, the US supports independence for the Baltics. Would it help anything if Bush was too much ahead of changed Soviet politics? I have no problem with Bush." The danger, say other analysts, is that the US is missing its chance for recognition in the history books. Does the US want to be seen as the leader in the final drive for Baltic recognition, or is it willing to take a back seat? Since last weekend, there has been a flood of nations moving to establish full ties with the Baltics, which were illegally incorporated into the Soviet Union 51 years ago. The Scandinavians led the way, followed closely by Argentina, Canada, Poland, Japan, and others. But the leaders of the three republics have eagerly sought the ultimate jewel in the crown of recognition: the blessing of the other, if not only, world superpower. "It's true that [recognition] is something of a formality," says Prof. Terry Deibel of the National War College. "Given it's a formality, there doesn't seem any reason not to get up to speed with Europe." Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis has said US recognition is "important as protection against possible aggressive actions" that might halt the republic's quick moves to gain control of its borders and eliminate the last vestiges of Soviet domination. But he added that he didn't expect further aggression from the Soviet Union. Bush, on the other hand, cited on Aug. 26 America's "special responsibilities" as a superpower, and warned that he didn't want "to be a part of making a mistake that might contribute to some kind of anarchy inside the Soviet Union." The US never recognized the USSR's annexation of the Baltics in the first place, and has used that policy of nonrecognition as its defense for not conducting more active bilateral relations with the three. Estonia's top representative in the US, based in the New York legation that has remained open since annexation in 1940, is deferential to Bush's concerns. "I respect the views of the president," says Ernst Jaakson, Estonia's consul general. "The people of Estonia may be somewhat disappointed, but we have to consider other matters the United States might be taking into account. "The president has said he supports independence, and that is the main point. If it's a question of a few days this way or that, I don't think it makes that much difference" when full formal recognition is announced. A Latvian diplomat here was less understanding. "We certainly expected more from the US," says Valdemars Kreicbergs, a counselor at the Latvian legation in Washington. "I don't quite understand the motives the president mentioned for still waiting. "In the case of Lithuania, its present-day territory is not the same as in 1940 when the Russians moved in. But that's a question that can be postponed," says Mr. Kreicbergs. The US may be lingering over the Baltic question to avoid the inevitable and much tougher next question: When will it start recognizing the independence of Soviet republics like Georgia, Armenia, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine, which have declared some form of independence? Beyond that, there are the constituent republics of Yugoslavia that will also step up their demands for recognition the minute the Baltics are fully recognized. In comparison, the Baltic question is easy, because the US never considered the Baltics a legitimate part of the Soviet Union. Since Washington has maintained no such status with the other 12 Soviet republics, grant-ing formal ties would mean a much greater leap toward recognizing the disintegration of the country. And that is, for now, not a leap the cautious Bush is ready to consider.