THE Bush administration is proceeding on the assumption there will be no change in United States-Soviet relations, despite uneasiness caused by Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's abrupt resignation and warning about gathering forces of dictatorship. The thawing of the cold war has often seemed a uniquely personal endeavor of Shevardnadze and Secretary of State James Baker III, but Mr. Baker moved quickly last week to emphasize that, as far as he knew, arms agreements and other diplomatic work in process would move apace.
At the same time, Baker said some ``worrying signs'' have been apparent in the Soviet Union for some time, and ``we would obviously be foolish not to take the warning in Foreign Minister Shevardnadze's resignation seriously.''
In Washington the affable Shevardnadze has been the symbol of new Soviet thinking in foreign affairs, in some ways more highly regarded than Mr. Gorbachev. The timing and nature of his resignation were an unwelcome shock, coming as a reminder that the Persian Gulf is not yet the only part of the world the US needs to worry about.
The NATO alliance has staked much on the policies of Gorbachev and his allies, and if the Soviet Union turns rightward or is plunged into economic and social chaos, planning for the much-vaunted, so-called ``new world order'' might turn out to have been in vain. Prospective military reductions and progress toward an inclusive Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe could be stopped in their tracks. Immediate US concerns raised by the Shevardnadze resignation center on two things: action in the Gulf and arms control agreements that are almost completed.
On the Gulf, the Soviets have already backed a United Nations resolution allowing use of force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. But any change in their attitude could split the so-far strong stance of the anti-Iraq alliance, and perhaps further encourage Saddam Hussein to hold fast.
Shevardnadze has been a staunch supporter of US Gulf policies, pushing to reverse overnight decades of Soviet support for Iraq. This is one of the main points that conservatives and the military held against him, and his departure will probably lead at least to a cooling of Soviet rhetoric concerning the Gulf, particularly if his replacement is Yevgeny Primakov, currently the Foreign Ministry's chief Arabist. As of this writing, the new foreign minister had not been announced.
``Primakov's views are very much seen to represent those of elements in the Soviet bureaucracy that have opposed Shevardnadze's pro-US tilt, not only on the Gulf crisis, but on a range of other issues from Eastern Europe to arms control,'' says John Hannah, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. On arms control, the US hopes Shevardnadze's departure will not stall final agreement on START, the strategic arms treaty which would make deep cuts in long-range nuclear weapons. President Bush and Gorbachev are scheduled to sign a START pact at a February summit in Moscow, but tentative agreements on some of the last START glitches are apparently based on personal understandings between Baker and Shevardnadze rather than finely detailed diplomatic language.
NATO is also worried about what Western officials claim are serious problems relating to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty signed last month in Paris.
This pact makes deep cuts in conventional weapons based on the European continent, but NATO now complains that the Soviets have not declared all the equipment they have, and are attempting to exclude some weapons by switching them to naval units outside the treaty's scope.
In the past, Shevardnadze and the Soviet military have clashed over arms negotiations, with Shevardnadze willing to take more flexible positions and military authorities trying to hold the line. Some Soviet officers are openly expressing glee at Shevardnadze's fall, and may now try to throw wrenches in the arms control machinery.
``The military is anxious to reassert some authority,'' says Heather Bellows, a political science professor and Soviet scholar at Bucknell University.
US officials are eager to see whether Shevardnadze's departure will strengthen Gorbachev or weaken him; cause the Soviet leader to return to his reformist roots, or opt for further concessions to factions desiring hard-line authority.
Their nightmare is that with the restraining hand of his foreign minister out of the way, Gorbachev will launch a repressive military crackdown in independence-minded republics.
Most US analysts agree that the world has not seen the last of Shevardnadze, a canny professional politician and party boss. One scenario holds that, with his resignation, Shevardnadze has dramatically severed his ties with the Soviet powers that be and will step in to fill the niche emptied by the death of revered human rights activist Andrei Sakharov.