The secret transfer of three crack Soviet army divisions to the Ministry of Internal Affairs' dread internal police is the latest move by Mikhail Gorbachev to impose an iron-fisted "law and order" that, however unwittingly, is facilitated by the Bush administration's all-out support for the Soviet president.

The marriage of superior army units with the regular internal police force shows Gorbachev's intention to use the enhanced military power of the MVD, newly headed by Gen. Boris Gromov of Afghan war fame, to smash independence in Soviet republics. It follows Wednesday's attacks on Latvia's press center by an MVD "black beret" squad and the reported murder of the son of Lithuania's deputy prime minister, Romualdas Ozolas.

As we write, the death of Ozolas' 20-year-old son remains unsolved. Although intelligence sources have no provable link to Gorbachev's decision to crack down on Baltic independence, they suspect more than just coincidence, given the 70 years during which the MVD has been perfecting perfidy.

These disturbing developments raise a question here whether President Bush inadvertently helped open the door for the return of the Soviet iron fist and the strangling of democracy by approving a billion-dollar aid package "to help the Soviet Union stay the course of democracy." Mari-Ann Rikken, the authoritative spokeswoman here for Estonian independence, told us that "U.S. actions and words must be held accountable for the freedom with which Gorbachev seems to be moving back to dictatorship."

Lithuania is the storm center, with officials there sending dire warnings to friends in the West that the night of the long knives is at hand. One such report from anti-Communist labor leaders in Vilnius reached AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland the day after Christmas. Kirkland was told that Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis possessed information "that Soviet commanders on the border are carrying several sets of orders and would be told on Dec. 24 when to open them."

The Bush administration has received similar reports but has said nothing to stop or soften the coming blow to the Baltics, Moldavia, Georgia and other republics seeking independence. This may simply reflect a Bush administration misjudgment of how fast and far Gorbachev seems ready to forsake his perestroika and glasnost.

But the U.S. posture may also arise from Bush's concentration on keeping Gorbachev in line behind U.S. use of force in the Persian Gulf. Whatever the reason, the administration has chosen to overlook Eduard Shevardnadze's warnings of "coming dictatorship" in the Kremlin. That has undermined Soviet reformers, including the Lithuanian president.

Landsbergis said nothing publicly, but he was shaken in his Oval Office meeting last month, when Bush on three separate occasions suggested that "referendum" might be the best path to sovereignty for the Baltic states. The word implied that Bush fears to affront Gorbachev by facing up to the fact that the independent Baltic states were never legally joined to the Soviet Union but were seized just as Kuwait was. Must there be a referendum in Kuwait after Iraq is expelled?

Landsbergis later asked friends this question: Did Bush understand that in espousing a referendum in Lithuania he was dooming Latvia and quite possibly Estonia to perpetual subjugation under Moscow's heel? Those republics have been flooded with tens of thousands of Russian and other non-Baltic ethnics whose future as privileged citizens is tied to Moscow's rule.

Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, the hard-line KGB boss, during his outrageous harangue against the United States and the West on Dec. 22, quoted Secretary of State James A. Baker III with favor. It was "noteworthy," he said, that Baker had told the NATO Council in Brussels that the question today for Gorbachev is "how to prevent anarchy and chaos" and not whether reforms "succeed."

Of course Baker was not intentionally inviting a repressive crackdown. But that the head of the KGB publicly read his words that way is cause enough for Bush to take a moment away from the Persian Gulf and produce a new policy that recognizes Mikhail Gorbachev for what he is: a skilled Communist politician who puts power far ahead of reform and democracy.

1991, Creators Syndicate Inc.