IN the wake of Moscow's crackdown in the Baltics, pressure is mounting in Washington for a change in US policy toward the Soviet Union. Bush administration critics, including policy analysts, economists, and members of congress, say the White House must go further than verbally criticizing the attacks on Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They want to cut off the $1.2 billion agricultural and export credits recently extended to Moscow and to establish relations with individual republics.
The World Bank has suspended discussions with the Soviet Union on technical assistance in response to Moscow's use of force in the Baltics.
``I'd like to see Bush pick up the phone, call Gorbachev, and let him know that if he continues his actions of recent weeks it will have a very negative effect on US policy and Bush's ability to help Gorbachev economically,'' says Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, co-chairman of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The committee heard testimony this week from visiting Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian leaders. They want US help in securing Soviet troop withdrawal from their republics, restoration of civilian rule there, and an end to forced conscription of Baltic youth into the Soviet Army.
Dainis Ivans, vice president of Latvia, stated: ``We cannot defend ourselves against an overwhelming aggressive force alone. We know that without forceful and consistent pressure by the United States on the Gorbachev government, democratization will be destroyed in the Baltic states, Russia, and beyond.''
The Baltic leaders also met with Secretary of State James Baker III, seeking support. ``Horizontal ties'' are paramount, says Bronious Kuzmickas, vice president of Lithuania. ``We must cut out the middle man - the bureaucracy of the central government.''
By trying to preserve the sanctity of Gorbachev's rule, US policy undermines emerging democratic reform, say critics. Bush's major constraint, they say, is his priority to maintain the coalition against Iraq.
``The Bush administration is in a difficult position, prosecuting a war in which the Soviet Union is an ally and has been very helpful in creating a UN consensus,'' Representative Hoyer says.
Joe Cobb, the Joint Economic Committee's Republican staff director, wonders if ``Gorbachev supported the US at the UN in order to have an upstaging event to cover his repression in the Baltics.''
A senior administration official weighs possible US leverage over Soviet internal policy: ``We were pretty cautious in terms of extending credits, loans, and other kinds of economic assistance to the Soviet Union, so the well we can draw from in terms of measures to show our displeasure is pretty shallow.''
Observers charge that the assistance already doled out - part of $900 million in pledged US agricultural credits - has been manipulated to Gorbachev's political advantage. ``Those who give aid should understand the very high level of corruption. What's given to Moscow, to the central government, does wind up on the black market, sold at a very high price,'' asserts Mr. Kuzmickas.
Food and other aid is distributed to garner political support, not to address need, says Mr. Cobb. The Soviets would resist the International Red Cross or other international relief organizations setting up centers, he says, because it would take away Gorbachev's discretionary control.
Hoyer calls the administration's refusal to confront this and other reported abuses ironic. He says Bush has opted to focus on the restoration of Kuwait's monarchy while neglecting the freely elected Baltic governments now under siege.
Hoyer notes the complexities confronting US policymakers: ``In Gorbachev's view, maintaining positive relations with the West is helpful to the Soviet Union. He is under great pressure from rightists and the military, who are concerned about the disintegration of the union.''
``By helping Gorbachev now it helps him put off reforms,'' says economist Igor Birman, a Soviet economist and consultant to the Pentagon. He says that Moscow ``should be punished'' for the recent violence in the Baltics. ``The most immediate complaint of the population is that they cannot buy food. They can't do it because of Moscow's failure to implement economic reforms.''
Mr. Birman warns that focusing US-Soviet relations on Gorbachev is a mistake. ``Gorbachev is in power only by force,'' he says, underscoring the Soviet leader's collusion with the Army's repression in recent weeks.
``Why should we send food to the country which produces new weapons and which had nuclear explosions as recent as last October? The Soviets spend about a quarter of their GNP on the military. The Bush administration should have insisted on the reduction of the production of arms, rather than disarmament,'' he says, alluding to the Feb. 11 US-Soviet summit on, among other topics, long-range nuclear weapons.
Are US relations with individual republics viable? Birman is bullish on the prospect: ``The real power of Gorbachev is diminishing. In the long run, there is a 100 percent chance that the republics will liberate themselves.'' He says Georgia, Armenia, and other trans-Caucasian republics will be autonomous within a year.
``[Russian Republic President Boris] Yeltsin has shown that he has a strong political base in Russia,'' says Hoyer, pointing to the richest republic, and home to the central government. ``Yeltsin and the Russian Republic in particular are not prepared to cede back the democratic agenda it has set upon.''
A SENIOR US Treasury official is less sanguine about dealing directly with the republics. Creditors know that only the central government, with tight control over the oil, gold, and sources of foreign exchange, can borrow and pay back.
The official says the US Export-Import Bank has postponed its consideration of loan guarantees to the Soviets - up to $300 million, ``until we get some sort of signal from the White House.''