No one ever doubted President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's ability to start a domestic crackdown. But if events in Lithuania indeed signal a return to the heavy-handed ways of Soviet past, his desperate acts risk rendering his country even more sullen and ungovernable than it now is. Moreover, violent confrontations in the Baltics and elsewhere could also wipe out his constructive reform achievements: political pluralism at home and "new thinking" in international relations.
This is the sad truth in these fateful days, when the Kremlin seems intent on using the world's preoccupation in the Persian Gulf as a cover for crushing independence movements and political freedoms in rebellious republics.
There is nothing new about this strategy. In 1956, Soviet tanks ended Hungary's brief experiment with freedom by moving in while the world's attention was consumed by the Suez invasion.
Yet this time would be very different because a bloody crackdown would, in all likelihood, end the Soviet Union's last historic chance at peaceful reform. In the end, the reformist aspirations would triumph in some distant future -- as they ultimately did in Hungary -- but at a tantalizing cost to Soviet people who have already suffered so heavily under 73 years of Communist tyranny.
We still hope cooler and more rational heads prevail in the Kremlin, KGB headquarters and the Soviet defense ministry. Force provides no lasting solution to Soviet problems; they should be resolved through negotiations. Moscow's iron grip on Lithuania might well succeed in returning that proud and independent republic to the bankrupt socialist fold, but jackboots would hopelessly crush whatever mutual tolerance and amicability still exists among the Soviet mosaic of nationalities toward the Russian imperialists in power. The end result would be an empire sliding even more quickly into economic chaos and moral decline. Also, the Soviet Union no longer could enjoy the fruits of international goodwill.
The United States has a particularly big stake in the convulsions now taking place in the Soviet Union. President Gorbachev's "new thinking" has made some truly momentous changes possible. As the map of Europe has been redrawn, tensions have diminished and East-West cooperation has reached an unprecedented scale and frankness. In many international endeavors -- including the current crisis on the Gulf -- the Soviet Union has proven to be a helpful and trusted partner.
This country's sole commitment is not to Mr. Gorbachev, however. The United States also has commitments that are both older and more fundamental. Chief among them is the unwavering American belief in freedom and self-determination as an unalienable right of people.