ON Monday night, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev held his first formal press conference since the aftermath of the bloody military crackdown against Lithuanian nationalists in January. Mr. Gorbachev is eager to capitalize on the political stability, however temporary, won by the deal reached two weeks ago with the heads of 9 of the 15 Soviet republics. He has sent envoys abroad in search of Western aid suspended after the Baltic crackdown, while there are hints that obstacles to a United States-Soviet summit could be removed soon.
Yet the Soviet President's replies bore the same combination of defensiveness and a testy counterattack against critics, particularly those in the West, that has marked his appearances since those dark January days. Gorbachev insists he has been misunderstood by those who see a turn to the right. And he demands the undivided support of the West, seeing anything less as a retreat to the ``cold war.''
When a Western reporter asked Gorbachev to describe how Western countries should conduct relations with the republics, he shot back: ``We should all proceed from the premise that first, the Soviet Union does exist. Second, it will continue to exist. Third, it is a powerful state. And fourth, it is going to stay that way.''
In the five minute ramble that followed, Gorbachev referred to a new federalism that would give republics more power, but at no time did he provide a clue as to what ties with Soviet republics were permissible in his eyes.
What is clearly not OK is the meeting held yesterday in the White House between President George Bush and the leaders of the three Baltic republics - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia - which are seeking independence from the Soviet Union. On April 30, a Tass commentary assailed reports that the Bush administration was pursuing a ``dual policy'' toward the Soviet Union of having direct contacts with republics while clearly supporting Gorbachev.
Such contacts, Tass said, were ``ill-timed,'' and undermine the accord reached with republics. This interpretation of the pact with the republics is hardly shared by the republican leaders. Indeed, the Gorbachev-approved draft of a new treaty of union states clearly that the republics ``are entitled to establish direct diplomatic, consular, trade and other ties with foreign states.''
The Bush `dual' policy, Tass says, encourages instability at a time when ``contrary to prophecies by some analysts,'' Gorbachev's role as a leader is ``confirmed ... rather than diminished.''
Gorbachev laid part of the blame for this on the Western press, which he accused of reaching ``hasty conclusions, thus casting doubt on everything that's been achieved.''
This was by no means a one-time outburst. Only the day before the Soviet leader devoted an entire meeting with media baron Rupert Murdoch to the theme of the Western failure to understand Soviet reality. According to a lengthy Tass account, Gorbachev emphasized what he sees as ``emerging signs that the US is readjusting its attitude to the Soviet Union.''
The US is subjecting the relationship to ``unnecessary tests'' that threaten to ``plunge the world into a `cold' or `semicold' war,'' Gorbachev said.
At least one major `test' is Western economic aid which has been slowed since the Baltic events. Western investors are also scared off by both instability and economic chaos, as well as the anti-Western outbursts of Soviet leaders.
Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, who last February accused Western banks of conspiring to carry out economic sabotage, went to Brussels last week to plead for aid from the European Community. In Washington earlier this week, Eduard Shevardnadze, the liberal former Soviet foreign minister, urged approval of a $1.5 billion food credit in order to preserve reforms in the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev clearly feels the urgency for aid, but he also finds Western pressure hard to swallow. At his Monday press conference, he testily dismissed advice-givers from the West who think ``that 300 million [people] cannot settle their own problems and offer them ready-made recipes.''
Still there are signs that Gorbachev is trying to ease the path to aid. On Sunday the Soviet parliament is scheduled to vote on a long-delayed law easing restrictions on emigration. Passage of that legislation is necessary to make the Soviet Union eligible under US law for most-favored-nation trade status and government credits.
And there are tantalizing hints that the disputes over implementing the treaty to reduce conventional forces in Europe may be solved, opening the door to concluding a treaty on nuclear forces and to holding a delayed US-Soviet summit. On Tuesday Gorbachev met with US Ambassador Jack Matlock, where according to a Tass account, ``mindful of Bush's wishes, they agreed on urgent measures related to the conventional forces treaty.''