KAUNAS, U.S.S.R., JAN. 19 -- The Soviet paratroop division stationed in this former Lithuanian capital won its battle colors suppressing the Hungarian uprising in 1956. It went on to distinguish itself by participating in the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. If the order comes from Moscow to crush parliamentary democracy in Lithuania, the unit's officers know how they will respond.

"If it had been necessary, believe me, we would have taken any parliament you like," said Col. Yuri Sokolov, the division's chief political commissar. "We would have taken it, even though we're not being very well paid, devoted as we are to our profession."

The world got a glimpse of the repressive power of the Soviet army last weekend when about 300 Soviet paratroops stormed Lithuania's central television studios and transmitting tower in Vilnius, the current capital, killing at least 13 civilians. Loudspeaker announcements from armored cars claimed that a Communist-sponsored "National Salvation Committee" had seized power in Lithuania, and for a few hours it seemed as if the republic's first democratically elected legislature in a half-century was on the verge of being shut down.

But for reasons still shrouded in mystery, the military crackdown on Lithuania's independence-minded government was suspended just as it was getting underway.

Perhaps Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, whose personal approval is almost certainly required for the use of paratroops in a domestic operation, had second thoughts when the potential extent of civilian casualties became clear. Perhaps the military action in Vilnius was designed as a sharp, psychological shock to bring all sides to their senses. Or perhaps it was a dress rehearsal for a much bigger operation to come, possibly in the Soviet Union's largest republic, Russia, where populist President Boris Yeltsin also has charted a separatist course, even threatening to create a wholly Russian army.

Whatever the explanation for last weekend's dramatic events, it is clear that the Soviet Union's crisis of control is far from over. The clash in Lithuania solved nothing, and the battle lines have been starkly drawn -- politically, psychologically, militarily. Each side is digging into its position, and a visit to Kaunas, which was Lithuania's capital for nearly 20 years prior to the republic's forcible annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940, suggests that the political gulf between the Soviet troops and the indigenous population has never been greater.

Kaunas, Vilnius and other Lithuanian cities are adorned with posters depicting Gorbachev as a butcher and Soviet troops as occupation forces. After being closed down in Vilnius, Lithuanian television is back on the air from Kaunas, angering the local military garrison by broadcasting hour after hour of independence rhetoric. Lithuanians of varied opinion have closed ranks around President Vytautas Landsbergis and the Lithuanian parliament, overlooking previous political differences.

The predominantly Russian officer corps of the Soviet army is said to feel beleaguered and insulted. Discontent over atrocious housing conditions and poor food supplies is growing. After withdrawing from Eastern Europe with scarcely a murmur, the army seems prepared to make a final stand, not for the discredited ideology of socialism, but for the preservation of the Soviet Union and the armed forces. For them, further retreat is unthinkable, both politically and physically.

"We can't just pick up and go back to Russia. The families of the men here sometimes say that they would be ready to go home. But an army needs somewhere to go to. We have no apartments back in Russia, no vacant military bases," said Capt. Alexei Robozin, a political officer in the Kaunas garrison.

In an attempt to ease tensions with the army, the mayor of Kaunas met Friday night with officers of the garrison, veterans and their families for the first time since the Sajudis secessionist movement came to power in Lithuania a year ago. He was submerged by complaints from the Russian-speaking officers about poor living conditions, hostility from the local population and "discriminatory legislation" adopted by the Lithuanian parliament.

"I have a Soviet passport, and I want to keep it. Why do I need a Lithuanian passport?" shouted one officer when told that Soviet soldiers would be eligible for Lithuanian citizenship under some conditions.

The Kaunas paratroop division did not take part in last weekend's military action in Vilnius, even though it was the closest such unit to the scene. It seems now to be standard Soviet practice not to use local troops in such operations so that they might preserve minimum good relations with the local populace. The operation was carried out by a paratroop regiment flown to Vilnius three or four days previously from Pskov, in northern Russia, but officers in the Kaunas garrison made clear that they would obey similar orders to "restore order."

"If this had been a real coup, we could have taken over the whole place in 15 minutes. These barricades are nothing to us. We certainly know where the {Kaunas} TV tower is," said Lt. Col. Ivan Babichev, a regimental commander who invited several American reporters to dine at his officers' mess after the meeting.

The Kaunas paratroop commanders also reacted sharply to what they view as Yeltsin's attempts to split the Soviet army by setting up a separate Russian military or national guard. In a fiery speech at Friday night's meeting, divisional commander Col. Valery Khatskievich accused Yeltsin of a "Munich-style betrayal" in concluding mutual cooperation treaties between Russia and the three secessionist Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Khatskievich disclosed that three of his soldiers had deserted with their weapons over the previous 24 hours, apparently in response to a statement by Yeltsin urging Russian soldiers not to obey "illegal orders." "It will be on Yeltsin's conscience if these boys are killed {resisting capture}," Khatskievich said. Other officers said today that the deserters were rounded up overnight without a struggle.

While expressing loyalty to Gorbachev, several officers seemed uncomfortable with his refusal to take personal responsibility for last weekend's military operation in Vilnius. This has left them in the embarassing position of trying to explain why their brother officers from Pskov answered the appeal of a patently unconstitutional body -- the self-styled National Salvation Committee -- a pro-Moscow Communist group whose membership is shrouded in mystery. "Gorbachev is a good man, but he's too soft," said one officer in frustration over the Soviet president's failure to take a clear political stand.

In public, the officers insist that a garrison commander can authorize troops to be used to "restore order" if the civilian authorities lose control, but it seems inconceivable that a paratroop commander from Pskov would allow his troops to be used in a military operation in Lithuania without orders from Gorbachev or Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that the military was out of Kremlin control last weekend, the growing mood of discontent within the armed forces is clearly an important factor in presidential decision-making. Many Baltic leaders believe that Gorbachev has become a hostage of hard-liners within the military and Communist Party.

"Gorbachev is surrendering democratic positions step by step to the most reactionary forces," said Algirdas Kauspedas, the director of Lithuanian television, speaking a week after troops shot their way into his office. "These . . . colonels have, in effect, put a pistol to Gorbachev's head. Either he fulfills their orders, or they will replace him."

The sense of frustration in the military is palpable in the pre-World War II barracks on the outskirts of Kaunas, where army families live in degrading conditions. In one dormitory, families of three or four people have been allocated rooms 15 feet long by 12 feet wide. There is one kitchen for an entire floor of 20 people, and until a few months ago, there was no hot water.

"Of course we know that housing is a problem all over the Soviet Union," said Babichev, the regimental commander. "But in other places, local authorities reserve a certain number of apartments for the military. There's some point to the waiting list. Since Sajudis came to power in Lithuania last year, they have stopped giving us any apartments at all."

Military wives feel isolated from the local community. They complain that they have not been issued ration coupons, making shopping even more of a nightmare. When they walk down the street or stand in line, they hear people cursing the army. Since few of them speak Lithuanian, it is difficult for them to find jobs. Those with personal ties in Lithuania have divided loyalties.

"My father is Lithuanian, my mother is Russian, and my husband is a soldier. I feel as if my mind is divided into three parts. When I hear people curse the army on a bus, I have to sit and bear it quietly," said Rita Korobko, whose parents divorced last year after 33 years of marriage because of their diametrically opposed views on Lithuanian independence.

At Friday night's meeting, officers complained bitterly about the barricades that went up around Kaunas last weekend following the seizure of the buildings in Vilnius, saying they artificially increased tension in the city. Adomonis, the mayor, tried to explain that the barricades were a natural reaction to the violence in the capital. "We have to resolve our problems by political methods and not by military methods," he pleaded.

The regimental commander seemed unsympathetic. He cannot understand why Lithuanians are "ungrateful" to the troops who "liberated" them from Nazi occupation. Neither can he accept the fact that the new Lithuanian government honors partisans who fought against the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.

Asked whether he saw any parallel between the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the regiment's tanks were used to suppress "socialism with a human face," and Lithuania today, Col. Babichev replied: "No, there isn't any similarity. In Czechoslovakia, there was democracy. What we have here in Lithuania is simply fascism."