IS MOSCOW doing a repeat of what it did in 1956, when, under cover of international crisis, it wiped out an independence movement in the Soviet empire? Then it was Suez and Hungary, today it is Iraq and Lithuania. The question became even sharper yesterday, when Soviet troops fired the first live shots in the Kremlin's escalating effort to compel Lithuania to back off its 10-month-old reassertion of its pre-World War II independence -- independence that the Soviet Union of Stalin snuffed out in an infamous deal with Hitler's Germany.
In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, the Suez war dominated Western concern and contributed to an already strong reluctance to protest in any manner beyond futile words the Kremlin's simultaneous crushing of the Hungarian revolution. There was not, in most people's minds then and since, much more that the United States could have done.
But the context is very different in post-Cold War 1991. The Soviet Union has opened an internal reform and moved into a foreign policy resting on cooperation with the United States. This is what makes it so shocking and, frankly, so disappointing, that supposed reformer Mikhail Gorbachev should be tightening the screws in Lithuania. Even as his tanks were rolling in Vilnius yesterday, he telephoned George Bush to confer on Iraq. Mr. Bush took the call and pronounced it helpful. Was it Mr. Gorbachev's intent to induce Mr. Bush to play down what he is doing in Lithuania? The White House spokesman said it was "premature" to conclude that a Soviet crackdown was in the works -- this after a series of political provocations and military movements that had all the earmarks of an old-fashioned Soviet Communist power play.
This is not good enough. Everyone can see that President Bush is concentrating on the Gulf crisis, as he must. But the situation in Lithuania is extraordinary, and it has broad implications for the whole evolution of Soviet-American relations. What the Iraq crisis is about in the first instance is a powerful country crushing the independence of a small neighbor. That is exactly what Mr. Gorbachev may be moving toward in Lithuania. For Mr. Gorbachev to be so exploiting the American preoccupation with Iraq, or for Mr. Bush to be making it easier for him to do it, is the sort of double shuffle that erodes the very heart of the new de'tente.