The United States, attempting to deal with the decentralization of power in the Soviet Union, is considering asking Moscow to let it open small, new consulates around the country in an effort to improve U.S. ties to the 15 Soviet republics, according to administration officials.

Although many budget and logistical questions would need to be resolved before the United States could make a formal request of the Soviets, the officials said, the idea illustrates how recent events in the Soviet Union, including the drive for economic reform and greater autonomy from the central government, are posing fundamental challenges to U.S. foreign policy.

In the past, virtually all business on the U.S.-Soviet agenda was carried out through the central authorities. But that is changing now that power is devolving away from Moscow in many areas, a trend set in motion by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's political reforms seeking to dismantle central planning and Communist Party control.

The ascension of Boris Yeltsin to the presidency of the Russian republic and his role in advocating a radical shift to a market economy have underscored questions raised in recent months about whom the West should deal with -- Gorbachev and the central government or the reformers who would like to go still further.

If the West decides to provide economic aid to the Soviet Union this winter, particularly if there is a need for emergency humanitarian aid such as food, officials are asking themselves whether it should be delivered through the crumbling central bureauracy, or through the republics, or even through local enterprises.

The answer, in this time of historic but uncertain transition, is not immediately clear. "It's a very awkward time," said one government specialist on Soviet affairs. "The next six months are going to be crucial."

Whether or when the Soviet economic reforms now being debated and shaped will be implemented cannot now be determined. The Soviet legislature recently failed to pass any form of the radical, "500-day" economic reform plan, instead granting Gorbachev sweeping new powers to run the economy by decree. Stanislav Shatalin, the economist who is most prominently identified with the plan, is expected to discuss it here this week in a meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

On a parallel track, Moscow is beginning what may be long and difficult negotiations with the republics over the future shape of the union. And even the future of Gorbachev himself is viewed by some as uncertain.

Many of the Soviet reformers have urged the United States not to become overly committed to Gorbachev on the grounds that he is becoming less relevant to changes in Soviet society. They say that other power centers, such as the republics, city councils and private business ventures, will eventually fill the vacuum and that the United States should not buttress Gorbachev's rule from the center any longer than necessary.

Gorbachev remains vital to Western hopes of completing a series of major arms control treaties this year that would climax years of negotiating for reductions in nuclear and conventional arms. As a result, the United States must continue to deal with him while gingerly expanding contacts with the other centers of power.

Such contacts have been increasing, including some by private foundations and business leaders, but Bush administration officials said that much more will be required. "One of the questions we're asking is, how do we deal with a Soviet Union that is decentralizing?" said a senior State Department official. "How do we get people in all these other places?"

Other capitals are faced with the same problems. For example, last week Hungary announced plans to establish direct consular relations with Estonia; earlier, Hungary and the Ukraine did the same and may establish full diplomatic relations.

Several U.S. officials said one answer would be to establish in the various Soviet republics consulates oriented toward economic and commercial ties. These could be similar to the long-delayed Kiev consulate, which the State Department hopes to open by year's end. It will be relatively small, without classified materials or Marine guards, and could serve as a model for others in the Soviet Union, officials said. The only other U.S. consulate outside of Moscow is in Leningrad.

At the same time, the Soviets would be expected to seek to open reciprocal offices in the United States, which could provoke debate in both Congress and the administration.

The idea of opening more consulates could be complicated, however, by shrinking budget resources and the fact that the new U.S. Embassy building in Moscow remains unoccupied because of the electronic listening devices implanted during its construction. If the consulates prove too expensive or otherwise not feasible, one official said, an alternative could be to add new personnel to existing posts to make regular and systematic contacts with the republics and others.

Michael Mandelbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations said the idea of opening new consulates in the Soviet Union would have the advantage of sidestepping the issue of U.S. recognition of the republics that have declared independence from Moscow. But, he noted, it would also raise difficult questions about reciprocity. "Who is it reciprocal with? What if the Georgian Supreme Soviet wants to open a consulate in Washington?" he asked.

Mandelbaum said the growing decentralization poses other problems for Washington. "How do you deal with people who are not Gorbachev?" he asked, recalling the cold shoulder that Yeltsin received on his last visit here, before he became head of the Russian republic. "Ultimately, there is no choice but to treat the Soviet Union as a normal country" where opposition leaders are accorded respect, he said. "If Neil Kinnock comes, he can get into the White House." Kinnock is the head of the opposition British Labor Party.

Another challenge would be how to respond if some republics push to secede, as Lithuania has attempted to do, rather than just seeking greater autonomy. The United States had never acknowledged the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, but there is no precedent for how to respond if other republics leave the union. "If the other republics go Lithuania's way, I don't know what we would do," Mandelbaum said.