Secretary of State James Baker quietly met the new foreign minister of the vast Russian Republic this week and expressed interest in expanding contacts with leaders outside the Soviet central government, U.S. officials said Friday.

The Tuesday meeting with Andrey Kozyrev apparently was not publicized so as not to offend the new Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, or give the impression that the United States wanted to establish a separate foreign policy with each of the 15 republics.U.S. officials said Kozyrev, the new young minister tapped by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to oversee foreign policy, was in the United States on a private visit and indicated an interest in seeing Baker.

During the meeting, which lasted about half an hour, the two men discussed recent developments in the Soviet Union, and Baker "expressed interest in further expanding contacts with representatives of the Russian Republic and other republics," one official told Reuters.

Kozyrev held talks with Deputy Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger last November.

The Bush administration has steadily increased contacts with reformers and other leaders outside the Kremlin over the past year, although some American critics of the central government have pushed for even closer ties with these groups and individuals.

President Bush and Baker have vested much personal and political capital in backing President Mikhail Gorbachev and still believe he is the man in control of the Soviet government and the one they should do business with.

But as Gorbachev has become more hardline in his policies, they have become more openly critical and moved increasingly to improve ties with his chief rival, Yeltsin, and other reformers.

In recent weeks, Baker met at the State Department with the reformist mayor of Moscow, Gavriil Popov, and on another day with three key leaders of the Baltic republics that are agitating for independence from Moscow.

In both those cases, the meetings were publicized on Baker's daily schedule, and the State Department made arrangements for photographers and reporters to be present for a "photo opportunity" with Baker and his guests.

In Kozyrev's case, U.S. officials apparently were sensitive to the fact that unlike these earlier visitors, he bore the title of foreign minister.