THE dam has broken in the Baltics. Moscow has set the stage for a virtual takeover of Lithuania. It is difficult to overstate how regressive this action is. Mikhail Gorbachev is counting on the Gulf crisis to deflect attention from his aggression in the Baltics. The Soviets played a similar card in 1956 - overthrowing the Nagy regime in Hungary as the world focused on the Suez Crisis.
Yet 1991 is a different time and age. If Gorbachev believes the world won't see how seriously his actions compromise the new world order and the good faith the West showed last year as Soviet tanks rolled through Vilnius, he has seriously miscalculated.
Let there be no mistake. This action has Gorbachev's fingerprints all over it. The West has hoped Gorbachev's rightward shift was an effort to appease hard-liners. Yet it appears the Dr. Jekyll Gorbachev of glasnost has become the Mr. Hyde Gorbachev of Baltic repression.
The world is today less tolerant of empire. The Baltic republics - never a willing part of the Soviet system - are emboldened in a way the Hungarians in 1956 were not. The Soviet Union, itself no longer a political monolith, is less capable of pushing past the UN, the European Community, the United States, and the free world the kind of lies now emanating from Moscow. No legitimate authority in Lithuania asked Gorbachev to send troops. He took the action himself.
Western resolve on behalf of Baltic independence must not waver, but become stronger. Soviet support of the US in the Gulf should not prevent a strong US response to the Baltic crisis. The Soviet role in the Gulf coalition is unlikely to change now.
Gorbachev is assuming the US is too busy elsewhere to mount an effective opposition to his Baltic policy, and too diplomatically burdened to set up a coalition against him. Yet the US in concert with the Europeans - who must in the short term carry the load against Moscow on this issue - should now consider sanctions and the withholding of aid to the USSR. It is not the optimum time for such a step. Gorbachev may suggest that less aid will impel a more authoritarian approach still.
Oddly, it may be in the Baltics more even than in the Gulf that the new world order is being tested. The West can't just stand by while the Baltics are again chained to the Kremlin.