SOVIET-AMERICAN relations seem to have entered a holding pattern. After three days of talks here between United States Secretary of State James Baker III and senior Soviet officials, there was little to show on key issues such as arms control, the Middle East, or the status of the Baltic republics.
Mr. Baker's visit here was the first by a senior US official since the beginning of the Gulf war and the almost simultaneous Soviet military crackdown on Baltic nationalists in mid-January. Those events, along with other signs of a shift away from reform in Soviet internal policy, have placed a strain on the US-Soviet relationship.
"One can't help concluding that the honeymoon in Soviet-American relations is over," Soviet political scientist Andrei Kortunov wrote last week in the liberal journal Moscow News.
Both Moscow and Washington, however, are strongly interested in dispersing any images of a return to the days of cold war confrontation. Such fears arose during the final phase of the Gulf conflict when the Soviet Union took a step away from the coalition stance in a last ditch diplomatic bid to avert the ground war.
"What matters most is that the Soviet-US relationship has gone through a very difficult test, passed that test successfully, and thus opened sufficiently hopeful prospects for future development," Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh told reporters Friday night.
Baker echoed those sentiments, although he spoke in restrained terms about trying "to keep the relationship on that same track, if we possibly can." The two men discussed at length postwar planning in the Middle East, including creating a security system that would control the flow of arms into the region.
The underlying purpose of Baker's visit here seemed to be a scouting mission to assess how far Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has come under the influence of conservative Communist circles centered around the Communist Party, the military and security forces, and economic bureaucrats resistant to democratization and free-market reforms.
US officials found the greatest evidence of the rising strength of the military and its allies in the arms control talks that were conducted in parallel to the Baker-Bessmertnykh meetings.
A planned summit meeting by midyear in Moscow, which had been postponed from early February, is now blocked by a dispute over the treaty to reduce conventional forces in Europe signed last November in Paris. The Americans refuse to ratify the treaty until Moscow reverses a move to take three infantry divisions out of treaty controls by renaming them naval coastal defense units. Until that problem is solved, talks to put the last touches on the strategic arms treaty that is to be signed at the summit wil l not go forward.
Baker may be feeling nostalgic for the days of former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who led the arms control talks and was able to deliver important concessions from the military. But since Mr. Shevardnadze resigned in December under pressure from conservatives, Foreign Ministry officials privately complain they no longer have such clout. (On Saturday, Baker lunched privately with Shevardnadze, who now heads a private foreign policy group).
That was confirmed by the unusual decision to place the Soviet arms control delegation during the Baker visit under the direction of Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, the armed forces chief of general staff, rather than a Foreign Ministry official.
The Soviets made new proposals which the US rejected, but intensive talks are to continue. The key to a summit now seems to lie in whether Mr. Gorbachev has the will - or the power - to bring the military to heel.
Baker seemed to find more basis for optimism in a four-hour discussion with Gorbachev, devoted largely to Soviet internal developments. Baker spoke approvingly about the Soviet leader's "honest" presentation of his commitment to economic and political reform and the problems that process faced.
Baker also cautiously praised steps that he said "have been taken to defuse tensions" with the Baltic republics. The senior official repeated the longstanding US refusal to recognize the Soviet forced annexation of the Baltics in 1940, but he also implicitly backed Gorbachev's offer to resume negotiations that had been halted by the January violence.
At a meeting with representatives of the three Baltic republics on Saturday morning, Baker reportedly urged them to join such talks.
Baltic leaders say they are prepared to negotiate but point to previous talks that have made little progress because of what they feel is the Kremlin's unwillingness to accept Baltic independence. Only two days before Baker's arrival here, the Soviet ambassador to Germany told a Bonn audience that "the Baltic republics were part of the Russian confederation for 200 years and the Soviet Union for 50 years and they will stay so."
The sympathy toward Gorbachev was to be balanced somewhat by a well-advertised dinner meeting with what was billed as leaders from the 12 non-Baltic republics. But only a handful of republican officials and prominent liberals showed up in response to what US officials admit were last-minute invitations.
The most prominent absentee was Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, whom Baker said also refused an invitation to a private meeting. Yeltsin aides declined to explain his refusal, but a knowledgable source suggests that Mr. Yeltsin was miffed by what he sees as Baker's less-than-respectful attitude toward himself and the democratic opposition.
Reuters reports from Mos-cow: Millions of people voted Sunday in a Kremlin-called referendum on a new-style state which President Mikhail Gorbachev says could decide whether the Soviet Union survives or breaks apart.
In Moscow, early voters at one central polling station appeared uncertain over the purpose of the referendum and indicated they saw it as a tussle between Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
When Yeltsin arrived at his local polling station walking hand-in-hand with his wife from his home nearby, a group of supporters waiting there chanted: "We are with you. You are the only hope for Russia."