ALTHOUGH Mikhail Gorbachev insists that "neither the internal nor the external policy has changed" in the Soviet Union, the truth is that everything has changed.
The Soviet interventions in Lithuania and Latvia have demolished any lingering hopes that Gorbachev could transform the Soviet Union into a free association of republics. In essence, the Soviet Union has ceased to exist.
The great question, which will be played out over the next months and years, is what will emerge in its stead.
Before the Jan. 13 invasion of Lithuania there was still hope that the republics could attain political independence peacefully and go on to freely establish economic ties that would benefit them all. This still may occur but not under the leadership of Gorbachev, who has clearly chosen to save the empire by falling back on the army, secret police and central bureaucracy.
While the crackdowns in Lithuania and Latvia mark the end of the reformist Gorbachev era, they do not portend, as some are saying, a return to the old ways. Given the political change that has already occurred and the country's sickly economy -- which might collapse entirely following a countryside crackdown -- repression is not an option.
The current trouble can be traced to early last year, when the Communist Party abdicated its constitutional claim to rule that had been based on its alleged insight into the laws of history. This left no foundation, no justification, for holding the people of the Soviet Union together by force under a central government in Moscow.
That government lacked alternative, democratic legitimacy. The Soviet Union might have been preserved by a popular, democratic election of a representative assembly that would in turn agree on a constitution binding all.
But none of this was done. The central authorities in Moscow never acquired a democratic or constitutional foundation. The only democratic elections took place in some republics, regions and cities, most successfully in the Baltic states.
It is revealing and tragic that Gorbachev and his reactionary allies in Moscow have chosen to apply force precisly against nations that have behaved in a model civilized, law-abiding way, free of terrible ethnic violence. It is revealing because the Baltic states are defenseless, a fact that doubtless was not lost on a military that will think twice before invading one of the larger republics, such as Georgia and Azerbaijan, where the citizenry is RTC more heavily armed.
It is tragic because Gorbachev has failed to understand that the Baltic states would have made excellent allies of Russia -- would have been another Finland -- had they been allowed to become independent. And we know that Finland has helped the Soviet Union economically without in any way threatening its security.
Although Vilnius in 1991 resembles Prague in 1968 and Budapest in 1956, there is something completely new in the present situation. The brutal action in Lithuania was condemned not only by national democratic movements in the republics but also by some of the establishment.
Most important, the leader of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, has condemned the action. Moreover, mass demonstrations in Moscow and other major cities show that his stand has popular support among Russians.
Yeltsin's move is consistent with a policy he has quietly and steadfastly pursued since his election last spring. Drawing on his relatively democratic credentials, he has defined himself as a spokesman for Russia, not a claimant to leadership in the Soviet Union.
In his travels to non-Russian republics Yeltsin has been building the foundation for a new type of relationship between Russia and the republics. Not only has he recognized the Baltic states but, during a little-noticed trip to Kiev in November, Yeltsin signed a treaty recognizing the Ukraine as a sovereign state and Russia's equal -- a move without precedent in Russian-Ukrainian relations.
Yeltsin and his advisers understand that the political independence of the republics does not preclude their economic cooperation with Russia. Unlike Gorbachev, they realize that ethnic affairs in the former Soviet Union have been transformed into international relations and that political liberalization and economic reforms must proceed from this fact.
Events in Vilnius and Riga have now destroyed any hope that economic reform will be promoted by the center, because Gorbachev's new allies oppose the market and private property.
Gorbachev also has removed the economic reformers from the central leadership. Any further reform must come from the republics.
What is likely to happen next? As the Soviet economy continues its inexorable decline, we can expect a more severe and brutal version of the Polish crisis of 1981, which followed Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law.
Throughout the 1980s Jaruzelski tried to institute economic reforms without political liberalization. In the end he had to give up.
Gorbachev's problems run much deeper, since he also has to deal with republics demanding independence. In the Soviet version of this crisis, reactionaries in the center will battle reformers in the republics. As that struggle unfolds, a key role will go to Yeltsin, because he alone among the major Soviet figures active today has the credibility and vision to offer a way out of the chaos that seems likely to become Gorbachev's chief legacy.
T Roman Szporluk is professor of history at the University of Michigan.