MOSCOW -- The paratroopers who gave Lithuania a scare Monday night by setting up checkpoints all over central Vilnius returned to their barracks early yesterday morning. The two young men they had detained were released unharmed.
But the incident had already caught the world's attention, making headlines all over Europe, the United States and Japan as political leaders wrestle with the question of how much economic aid to offer the Soviet Union.
On the eve of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's departure for Norway to give the Nobel Peace Prize address, the news from Vilnius sounded a dissonant counter-note. A jittery West was again put on guard against putting too much trust in a leader who, for all his history-making achievements, seems unable or unwilling to be consistent about reform.
The deployment of troops drew so much attention partly because it came hours after the release of a controversial report from the Soviet prosecutor general on the deaths of 13 Lithuanian demonstrators in January when Soviet troops seized Vilnius broadcast facilities.
The report asserted -- contrary to eyewitnesses, videotapes and sev
eral independent investigations -- that the demonstrators were somehow killed by other demonstrators, not by the troops.
That report came out after several weeks of attacks by Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs troops on Baltic border posts, in which some border guards were beaten and many border facilities burned or ransacked.
Hence the conflict over Baltic independence seems to be reheating just as Mr. Gorbachev nears a deal with nine of the 15 republics on signing a union treaty to create a renewed, considerably decentralized Soviet Union. Moreover, the U.S.S.R. would be not the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but the Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics.
Many journalists and politicians considered the timing of the report and the deployment of troops to be no coincidence. Soviet hard-liners, they suggested, were sending another message: that no matter how inconvenient for Western aid plans, or for Mr. Gorbachev's international reputation, or for the signing of the new union treaty, they have no intention of giving up Lithuania or any other Soviet territory without a fight.
Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis warned that the troops' actions Monday night could be a
prelude to serious violence. Another assault by the military on Lithuanian targets, he said, "would be a last attempt to change the course of developments in Lithuania before the signing of a new union treaty, the meeting of the G-7 countries [the seven major industrial powers] in London and a positive resolution of Lithuania's independence."
By taking for many months a tough line against independence of the three Baltic republics, Mr. Gorbachev seems to have laid a trap for himself that now may be ready to be sprung.
Whatever his personal opposition to secession of the Baltic republics, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova -- the six republics currently balking at entering a new union -- Mr. Gorbachev appears gradually to be getting used to the idea that they will win their independence. Otherwise he would push for a union treaty with only nine republics signing.
But conservatives in the military, the KGB and even the Soviet parliament are unable to accept such a development. And they can cite Mr. Gorbachev's longtime stance as justification for their actions to block independence for any republic.
After Lithuania became the first republic to unilaterally assert its independence, in a unanimous vote of its parliament March 11, 1990, Mr. Gorbachev arranged for the Soviet
parliament to rush through a law on secession.
He subsequently insisted that no republic could leave the union without following the law -- which requires secession to be approved by two-thirds of all voters in the republic merely to start a lengthy independence process.
But in non-binding referendums held in the three Baltic republics since then, only Lithuania achieved the necessary support. Estonia and Latvia fell short.
Though all three republics assert that they have the right to self-determination and do not need to follow the law, Mr. Gorbachev appears to be committed to it. In other words, it may prove hard for him to let some republics go even if he wants to do so.
For more than a year, Moscow loyalists have been pushing for the completion of the union treaty.
But now, with only nine of the 15 republics participating, signing of the treaty would, in effect, ratify and formalize the end of the union in its former shape.
Thus, some diplomats and Soviet political observers say that in the next few weeks, with Western aid on the table and the union treaty nearing completion, provocations from hard-liners of the sort seen in Vilnius on Monday night will grow considerably more likely.