OVERTHE weekend the crisis in Lithuania passed from the first live shots to the first deaths. Soviet troops and tanks are pursuing a calculated strategy of building-by-building takeover. By last night they had not yet reached the Parliament, seat and symbol of Lithuania's democratically elected government; they are evidently trying to replace that government with a loyalist regime built on old-style Communists and Lithuania's frightened non-Lithuanian minority. But the dire thrust of Soviet policy becomes clearer by the hour.

What is not so clear is exactly what elements in Moscow are responsible for this policy. Certainly Mikhail Gorbachev, the Nobel peace laureate, must be held accountable for violating his own solemn promise to settle nationality disputes by peaceful means. But whether he is the active or reluctant partner of the hard-line forces in Moscow is less certain. He has demanded Lithuania's return to loyalty to the Soviet constitution, which Lithuania's independence-minded Parliament has set aside. But an inquiry and peace mission has now been launched by one of his new institutional creations, the Federal Council. This is an advisory body of republic leaders and one naturally with a built-in favor for republic power.

In the prevailing confusion and uncertainty lies what hope foreign governments and peoples may still have that the events in Lithuania are not necessarily going to bring down the whole structure of reform in the Soviet Union. For it is very hard to see how democracy is going to have a chance anywhere else in the country if the Red Army suppresses it in a place whose claim to independence is absolutely incontestable: the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II wiped these three independent countries off the map. The issue is so sensitive, of course, not just because of the West's political investment in Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika. The principle that the Kremlin is ignoring in Lithuania -- the right of a small state to independence -- is precisely the one the United States is invoking in the campaign it is leading against Iraq's conquest of Kuwait. The timing, from an American viewpoint, could not be worse.

At the moment, the Western countries are condemning the assault on Lithuania but holding off from a final judgment. The hesitation is unavoidable, but thinking about alternative policies can no longer be deferred. The United States and its allies have refrained from granting diplomatic recognition to the embattled Baltic states on the premise that Moscow would allow their fate to be settled peacefully. Once that premise is in default, the reason for restraint on recognition quickly fades. Recognition, of course, would not be the only step the West would have to consider.