Paris It was inevitable that Mikhail Gorbachev would crack down othe Baltic independence movements. It did not require an exceptional tactical sense for him to recognize that the time to do so is when the rest of the world, and the American media and government in particular -- notoriously reluctant to pay attention to more than one thing at a time -- are obsessed with the Persian Gulf war.
He has to crack down because not to do so would lose him the support of the essential elements of central power: in the army, police and party apparatus. This has nothing to do with whether he is an admirable fellow, or deserves the Nobel Peace Prize he just has been given, or merits our gratitude for what he has accomplished up to now. He has virtually no alternative.
A man in his position can no more willingly preside over dismemberment of the Soviet Union than Winston Churchill over dismantlement of the British Empire. However the British Empire was in the end dismantled. Almost certainly, the Soviet Union will too.
The attempt to suppress Baltic nationalism, which so far has killed 14 persons in Lithuania and one in Latvia, demonstrates how advanced national disintegration is in the Soviet Union, and how weakened Mr. Gorbachev's position has become.
His space to maneuver has steadily narrowed. If he uses his power it deepens resistance to him. If he does not use it, disintegration accelerates. Baltic repression has provoked strikes and protests across the country. The four most important Soviet republics, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Byelorussia, have created their own federation, rival to the all-union federation Mr. Gorbachev is attempting to preserve.
It would appear that he is no longer entirely his own man. He seems significantly compromised, to maintain the support of conservative forces in the army, police and party establishment.
A considerable struggle is going on, not only over the direction of policy but over control of the apparatus of state power. The ministries of defense, interior and foreign affairs are on distinctly different courses. Boris Yeltsin, Russia's president, is, of course, on still another, defending the Baltic states' independence. His announcement of the new four-republic federation means that 85 percent of the Soviet Union's national production now is in the hands of republican governments hostile to Mr. Gorbachev's program.
The conservative group around Mr. Gorbachev has failed to impose its will on the republican governments, to say nothing of press, political class and public. State television, supposedly under new, hard-line direction, nonetheless opened a report on the Lithuanian violence last weekend with the words, ''Here is the official version of the news,'' and closed by saying, ''Unfortunately that is the only report we can give you.'' A dozen important national publications continue with impunity to defy the newly imposed official line.
A revolutionary process automatically drives the holder of power rightward, as each crisis at the power center splits off new factions to the left, and each successive challenge grows more radical.
This is not a process the outside world can do much to influence. It is a phenomenon of the internal dynamics of the revolution now taking place in the Soviet Union. What the Western governments can do, however, is to defend their own principles in their responses to the Soviet government's actual conduct.
In the Baltic case the right course is unmistakable. Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet government and army should be allowed no possibility of doubting that Western aid to the Soviet Union is wholly conditional: that it depends upon the continuation of a peaceful course of reform in the Soviet Union, in which all conflicts are settled through negotiation and accommodation.
The Soviet government must be told that officially instigated violence in the Baltic states, and political manipulations of the ancient and discreditable kind that invent ''national salvation committees'' to ''invite'' Soviet army interventions against ''bourgeois'' nationalist forces, are incompatible with good relations with the West.
It is particularly important that the United States and the German government deliver that message. Washington has recently seemed to think that it needs to buy Soviet acquiescence in U.S. Gulf policy with ''comprehension'' for Mr. Gorbachev's Baltic difficulties. Why?
Germany is the most important present and future supplier of aid and capital to the U.S.S.R., and Germans have made an inordinately large emotional investment in Mr. Gorbachev as the man responsible for reuniting their country and terminating the Cold War. A big, if demoralized, Soviet army still is on German territory. Hence, government and opposition in Germany have both refrained from criticizing Mr. Gorbachev over the Baltic repression.
This is a bad mistake. It encourages an outcome in the U.S.S.R. opposite to that continued liberalization which Germans, and all the Western allies, wish to see. It must be understood that a reformed and peaceful Soviet Union now may depend not on Mr. Gorbachev's success, but on his failure. The revolution devours its children.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.