Baker's Concern: Nuclear Arms US Secretary of State Will Seek Assurances Atomic Weapons Are under Central Control. SOVIET TRANSFORMATION

Article excerpt

AT a Washington meeting the other day Robert Strauss, US ambassador to the Soviet Union, was complaining that back in Moscow his world changes several times a day.

Every morning he starts out with a set agenda, only to have it blown to pieces when the urgent phone calls start: President Mikhail Gorbachev one day, Russian President Boris Yeltsin the next, and often Vadim Bakatin of the KGB, who wants advice on reform.

"Schedules don't mean anything," grumbled Mr. Strauss. "One of them calls and the whole schedule turns upside down." Fast-changing situation

That story pretty much sums up how the whole United States government looks, right now, at what used to be called the Soviet Union.

Just when Washington thinks it understands what's going on in its former superpower adversary, yet another historic development transforms things before its eyes, and top officials have to go back and rewrite obsolete policy plans and intelligence analyses that suddenly seem pallid.

Thus, as Secretary of State James Baker III readies for a crucial trip to Moscow on Saturday, US officials have no idea how the new commonwealth being cobbled together from ex-Soviet republics will end up.

Unlike the situation during the August attempted coup, the US sees friends on both sides of the current Soviet political struggle, and will take a hands-off approach to policy.

"I think we deal with everybody and anybody until it shakes out. And we try to be helpful and stay out of their business," said Strauss.

As the Bush administration has made very clear in recent days, the top US concern about the Moscow political crisis that Baker will stress during his trip is central control of nuclear weapons and the Soviet military.

Though there are no reports of any suspicious activity regarding any Soviet nuclear weapon as of yet, the stakes involved are high enough to make the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency nervous.

To this point Soviet nuclear weapons have been controlled by "capable people under strong discipline," said the CIA's director, Robert Gates, during his testimony to Congress this week.

But discipline of any sort, political or military, is something now in short supply in the former Soviet Union. Same woes as civilians

"These people are subject to many of the same economic problems and nationalist aspirations as their civilian countrymen," said Mr. …