When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev telephoned President Bush on Jan. 18 to discuss the Persian Gulf, the conversation was animated and friendly until Bush criticized the Soviet military crackdown in the Baltic states. According to an administration official who heard the White House end, there was a very long silence on the line from Moscow before Gorbachev repeated his standard position that he is trying to resolve the situation by peaceful means.

The call reflected the unresolved dilemma that has been facing the administration with increasing intensity for more than a month, as it grapples with how to disapprove of Gorbachev's increasingly odious domestic policies without destroying the dramatically improved international relationship with Moscow that is vital to U.S. policy in the gulf and many other areas.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh began a delicate set of negotiations at the State Department yesterday that probably will result in postponement of the scheduled Feb. 11-13 Bush-Gorbachev summit meeting in Moscow. Bessmertnykh seemed to signal this result when he said on arrival at Andrews Air Force Base that a summit meeting is needed, but the "timing and circumstances" should be discussed.

Adding to the complexity of the talks, which will continue with Baker and Bush on Monday, was an arrival statement by Bessmertnykh that expressed Soviet concern about "the scale" of U.S. bombing of Baghdad and damage to civilians and the civilian economy. Bessmertnykh said the destruction in Iraq "was not in the {U.N.} Security Council resolution" authorizing the use of "all necessary means" to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Gorbachev, in a statement in Moscow last Tuesday, said he wished to do everything possible to prevent "escalation of the conflict" and especially damage to the civilian population of Iraq.

After a two-hour meeting with Baker, Bessmertnykh said what has been done so far is in "complete accord" with the Security Council resolutions but there remains concern about "a danger" of the conflict tending toward the destruction of Iraq. Baker said it is not "the purpose or goal" of the multinational coalition to destroy Iraq.

Explaining the Bush approach to the difficult issues of policy toward the Soviet Union, a senior administration official said, "We were cautious about whether the post-Cold War era really arrived" after coming to office in 1989, "and we are cautious about abandoning it."

But just as it was criticized for failing to react quickly to dramatic, and largely positive, developments in the Soviet Union during Bush's first year in office, the administration now is coming under pressure to take decisive action to protest recent events there.

Both the House and Senate unanimously passed resolutions last week condemning the use of force in the Baltics and calling for U.S. deeds, such as economic sanctions against Moscow, as well as words of disapproval.

In a White House meeting Tuesday, Baltic Americans appealed to Bush not go through with the summit while repression continues in their ancestral homelands. The president countered, according to participants, by listing the vital U.S. stakes in what Gorbachev's policies have helped accomplish in Germany and Eastern Europe, the gulf and elsewhere.

As administration officials see it, the political situation inside the Soviet Union is so murky that the effect of utilizing the limited U.S. influence at this time is highly uncertain. "We're groping around inside a black box and we don't know what's inside it," said an official who is unsympathetic to Gorbachev's recent directions.

Soviet troop action in the Baltic states is seen as much more serious than the economic embargo and other pressures imposed by Moscow on Lithuania last spring, officials said, not only because at least 18 people have died violently in recent weeks, but also because the crackdown is part of a general pattern away from reform.

Since the surprise resignation of Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze Dec. 20, the administration has looked on with growing dismay as reformist figures have left Gorbachev's side or gone into opposition, and he has seemed to be making common cause with the military, security forces and other old-line Soviet forces that he had kept at bay. The Gorbachev of today is "a different person from the one making the decisions previously," said an official who has kept a close watch on the situation. "I think he has lost his self-confidence and has drawn into a tight circle of 'old thinkers.' "

Perhaps because of the concentration on the Persian Gulf, there has been no overall reevaluation of basic policy toward the Soviet Union, officials said. Instead, a series of interagency meetings have been held, often by the deputies to top officials, to decide on day-to-day responses to developments in the Baltics and elsewhere. As Gorbachev continues to maneuver among various policies and groups, officials say they still hope he will swing back to the path of reform, and admit to great reluctance to take any action that would undercut him. Officials fear such action would doom future chances to work with Gorbachev, and would strengthen hard-line forces that are outspokenly critical of Gorbachev's foreign policy.

The belief among a number of vocal outsiders, however, is that the United States has more clout -- and a greater responsibility to use it -- than the administration is admitting. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), for example, said in Senate debate Thursday that due to economic and ethnic woes in the Soviet Union, "Gorbachev needs us a lot more than we need him. . . . We have a strong hand to play, and we ought to play it."

Prof. Gail Lapidus, a Berkeley political scientist who once was a Gorbachev admirer, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Wednesday that Gorbachev has departed from the path of reform and is now "lending a fig leaf of legitimacy to a counterrevolutionary movement that threatens to lead the Soviet Union into violence and civil war." Based on her conclusions from a trip to Moscow last month, Lapidus said, "a fundamental reevaluation of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union is urgently called for." She said the administration "has not responded with the speed and forcefulness that the situation requires."

One recommendation from Lapidus and many others is that the United States shift from a "Gorbachev-centered" policy toward much greater contact with and support for democratic forces in the Soviet republics, including Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin. Beginning with Baker's July 17 statement that the United States would "touch base with the {Soviet} opposition," the administration has given lip service to such decentralization. But only a few figures from the republics have been received in Washington, and officials seem stymied by the practical problems of taking the policy very far.

To cast its lot mainly with reformers who have relatively little power, and who have lost many recent battles with Gorbachev-led conservatives, would constitute a great leap into the unknown, according to administration policy-makers. "When do you decide to make that leap? I don't think we're there yet," an official said.

The dramatic improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations in recent years, the most important foreign policy accomplishment of the Reagan and Bush presidencies, was much broader and deeper than the short-lived "detente" of the 1970s because it was based on fundamental changes in Soviet policies at home and abroad.

If reform is reversed in Moscow and foreign policies do not change drastically, an administration official said, the Washington-Moscow relationship could go back to something akin to the earlier time. "We would do business, especially in arms control, as we did with {Leonid} Brezhnev," he said. But the intimacy and cooperative spirit that has recently marked the relationship would be gone, and the policy announced by Bush in May 1989 of moving "beyond containment" to bring the Soviet Union into the community of nations, would be abandoned.

Others believe U.S.-Soviet relations could deteriorate more sharply than this model implies. In either case, officials said, the world would be a more dangerous place than in the era when Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev declared that the United States and the Soviet Union were no longer enemies.