Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev appears headed toward a new confrontation with the three Baltic republics and may attempt to thwart their drive for independence by declaring martial law, CIA Director William H. Webster said yesterday.

"If he has to assert his primacy, the primacy of the central government, it seems more logical that he will again do it in the Baltics by declaring a presidential rule . . . martial law or something of that kind," Webster said in an interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Post.

Such a crackdown might succeed but risks sparking "a contrary reaction" in the other 12 Soviet republics, many of which also are straining for greater autonomy or outright independence from the Kremlin, Webster said. "It may aggravate the situation in some of those republics, to become more assertive and more demanding, and they say, 'We can't work with this kind of government, we're not going back to the old days,' " he said.

Baltic leaders recently expressed concern about a new crackdown, possibly a new economic blockade imposed by Moscow, after next week's meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies. The restive republics -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- have balked at Gorbachev's demands that they join in a new union treaty that would bind them to Kremlin demands.

The United States never recognized incorporation of the Baltics into the Soviet Union. But in deference to Gorbachev, when tension mounted with Lithuania last spring, Washington stopped short of recognizing the republic's bid for independence.

Although the Baltics have figured prominently in U.S. concern about a Soviet crackdown, some government analysts have said they believe the republic of Georgia's independence bid is just as likely to trigger a confrontation.

In response to a question, Webster said Gorbachev still may be in power a year from now but added, "I think it also {is} probable that he will be in charge of a much different" country, one smaller than the current Soviet Union.

Asked about the possibility that Gorbachev could be replaced by a regime that would revert to totalitarianism, Webster replied, "I doubt it very much." He said Gorbachev is not so much being pushed into more authoritarian behavior as he is reaching out to trusted institutions, such as the military and KGB security service.

"Gorbachev finds himself in a situation where things are going to hell in a basket, and he is turning to those who said, 'We'll support you if you were more firm in these things,' " Webster said. "He's turning to the Army, he's turning to the KGB. He's putting the KGB in charge of food relief. He is trying to assert authority even as it drains out in all directions. He's reaching for power centers that can help him restore it."

Webster was asked whether disintegration of the Soviet Union was in the interest of the United States.

"Our policy is to support reform in the Soviet Union which promotes democracy and human rights," he said. "We have to then say, well, what best promotes democracy and human rights? Up to a point, local autonomy probably supports that general direction where . . . decisions are made at the more local level and there are more people participating in the process.

"When it breaks into nationalist and ethnic warfare, then it's probably time to address the question of order," he added. "And that's the old concern of liberty without order that was debated so eloquently 200 years ago. I know that our policy as far as the agency is concerned is to do nothing to destabilize the Soviet Union."

Some critics of U.S. policy have said, however, that it has become too closely linked with Gorbachev and the Kremlin. Many advocates of more radical Soviet reform have urged the West to let Gorbachev's authority erode even further in the direction of the more democratic and market-oriented local governments and republics.

At the same time, President Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and many Western leaders have sought to buy time for Gorbachev, in part because of his cooperation in foreign policy. Bush offered Moscow as much as $1 billion in credit guarantees this week to purchase U.S. farm commodities to help the Soviets.