Secretary of State James A. Baker III privately expressed concern to Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze this week that President Mikhail Gorbachev is resorting to authoritarian measures to counter mounting chaos in Soviet society, administration officials said.

Baker's comments to Shevardnadze came in a lengthy discussion in Houston on Tuesday about the turbulent Soviet political and economic conditions. Officials said Baker expressed some sympathy for Gorbachev's effort to reassert authority to avoid anarchy, but the U.S. secretary also wanted to warn the Soviet leadership that excessively repressive measures could threaten the warming U.S.-Soviet relationship.

In particular, according to administration officials, Baker told Shevardnadze that the United States wants to forestall any crackdown that could set back efforts to establish a market-oriented economy -- by, for instance, closing cooperatives or constraining other enterprises. Baker also cautioned against any Soviet backsliding from glasnost reforms that have permitted freedom of expression.

Shevardnadze replied that he wanted to continue to advance the reforms, officials said. But, as one official put it, "what happens . . . could be different."

Among the developments prompting concern within the administration have been Gorbachev's replacement of Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin with Boris Pugo, a former head of the Latvian KGB, and the Soviet's leader's appointment of Gen. Boris Gromov, a Soviet commander in Afghanistan, as deputy interior minister. Both men are considered hard-liners who were named to mollify conservatives.

In addition, Gorbachev has put a strong emphasis on law and order in his recent speeches. He has directed the KGB to oversee food deliveries and declared he will take steps to protect the authority of the beleaguered Soviet military. Furthermore, he has threatened a fresh crackdown on the breakaway Baltic republics if they refuse to remain in the Soviet central planning system.

U.S. analysts said these moves were, in part, a reaction to the devolution of power away from the Kremlin toward republics and local entities. Although he theoretically won enhanced powers through the recent establishment of a new Soviet presidency, Gorbachev's actual power has been ebbing, and many more Soviets are questioning whether Gorbachev's economic and political reforms are the problem instead of the solution.

Baker's remarks to Shevardnadze also underscored a quandary facing U.S. policy-makers. After some initial hesitation, President Bush and Baker have strongly backed Gorbachev; on Wednesday, for example, Bush announced a package of economic benefits to help Moscow cope with food and medical shortages.

Gorbachev, too, has steered Soviet foreign policy in directions favorable for the United States, pulling back from regional conflicts and lining up against Iraq. But a sharp turn toward authoritarianism by Gorbachev could put Bush on the spot, creating new pressures on him to dampen the emerging spirit of cooperation between the United States and Soviet Union.

After Bush announced the food aid package, for instance, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) said the timing was "particularly inappropriate."

"Consider the sequence of events," the senator said. "Last week, President Gorbachev announced the KGB would supervise the distribution of all foreign assistance. Yesterday, the chairman of the KGB pledged it would battle the anti-communist alliance between Westerners and emerging market forces in the Soviet Union, {whom} he vilified as political, as well as economic, criminals. Today, we announce aid."

High-ranking U.S. officials said they do not believe Gorbachev is fundamentally retreating from his economic and political reforms, and they said there is no evidence he is prepared to sanction violence or return to Soviet repression of an earlier era. But they said they remain uncertain how far Gorbachev might go in his reassertion of power.

"There's a move toward authoritarian reform," a senior administration policy-maker said in an interview. "Gorbachev is saying, 'I need to assert authority so I can continue my reform. I have to be able to exert some control.' He's partly right. He's got an argument. He may in his heart believe this is the only way to get reform.

"But we need to be straight with him and say anarchy doesn't allow you to not continue with reform," the official said, adding that freer markets, however unruly, are now beginning to form in the Soviet economy. "A heavier hand may take the form of an overzealous crackdown on the markets. The collectives are at risk -- what could get crushed is exactly the sector you're trying to encourage."

This official said another danger is that Gorbachev's recent moves will only intensify the tensions rippling through the Soviet Union, emboldening the military and angering reformers. "My real worry is not that Gorbachev uses force, but that he creates the context where it happens. Suppose the military is there in the Baltics and take them on; the potential for flashpoints inside the society is there."