MOSCOW, FEB. 9 -- His international prestige has been seriously undermined. Soviet liberals are talking about an incipient dictatorship. Hard-liners are bitter that the military crackdown in the Baltic states was left unfinished.

So what did Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev achieve by dispatching paratroops to Lithuania a month ago, a move widely interpreted as part of an effort to restore Moscow's control over the Soviet Union's rebellious republics?

At first glance, absolutely nothing. Separatist sentiment in all three Baltic states is at an all-time high, as today's non-binding plebiscite in Lithuania demonstrates. The pro-independence camp has been joined by a significant proportion of Lithuania's Russian-speaking minority that was sickened by the spectacle of Soviet soldiers firing on unarmed civilians. The pro-Kremlin "Committees for National Salvation" that claimed to have seized power in Lithuania and Latvia have been forced to suspend their activities.

Viewed in a wider perspective, however, last month's bungled military operation in the Baltic states appears to have provided Gorbachev with some desperately needed political maneuvering room.

His moral authority may have plummeted both at home and abroad, irretrievably so in places such as Lithuania. But the president's supporters argue that his political authority has been strengthened in the place that is most important to him: the Slavic heartland of Russia, by far the largest of the country's 15 republics.

"There was a real danger of Gorbachev becoming a president that nobody obeyed," said a well-placed Communist Party official. "Many republics, including Russia, wanted to reduce the center's functions to practically zero. The army was threatening to go off and do its own thing. Now at least people are listening to Gorbachev again."

According to the semi-official version of events, Gorbachev came under mounting pressure from hard-liners at the end of last year to reimpose strong central authority. The disarray among pro-democracy forces meant that it was very difficult for him to resist demands by hard-liners in the Communist Party and army for a crackdown. So he gave these forces -- known here as "conservatives" -- a free hand to "reimpose order" in Lithuania, the republic that had gone further than any other in rejecting the Soviet constitution.

"Gorbachev is now able to use the Lithuanian fiasco against the conservatives. He is telling them, 'Okay, we did this your way and look at the mess you created. Now let's do things by my methods,' " the Communist official said.

This portrayal of Gorbachev still struggling with the hard-liners even as he climbs into bed with them is partly self-serving, designed to reassure the West that the president remains a "good guy" at heart. But it is consistent with Gorbachev's longstanding political stratagem of staking out the middle ground by maintaining a constant balance between opposing political forces.

The available evidence suggests that Gorbachev never intended last month's abortive coup in Lithuania to develop into a full-scale military crackdown. Indeed, he may have been banking on a sharp domestic and Western reaction as a way of reining in the hard-liners.

If the coup had been serious, telephone and other communication lines likely would have been cut immediately and foreign journalists expelled. But reporters kept arriving in Vilnius throughout the crisis, with the Soviet Foreign Ministry taking a remarkably liberal attitude toward enforcing travel restrictions.

The hard-liners now are accusing Gorbachev of "political inconsistency." Some leaders of the "conservative" parliamentary group Soyuz even are suggesting that the president lost his nerve at a crucial moment and is therefore guilty of "betrayal." One Soyuz leader, Lt. Col. Viktor Alksnis, has proposed forming a nationwide "salvation committee" that would exclude both Gorbachev and his main political rival, President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Republic.

In the long term, it is quite possible that the hard-liners will give up on Gorbachev and try to seize power themselves. The lesson that many hard-liners are likely to draw from recent events in the Baltic states is that during the next crackdown it will be necessary to go all the way. "That's the worst-case scenario: a full-blooded return to totalitarian rule," conceded one Gorbachev associate. "But other scenarios are possible too."

Perhaps the most likely short-term scenario is the one that reformers have dubbed a "creeping coup," under which Gorbachev will gradually seek to reassert his authority, particularly in the Slavic heartland. The political situation in the Russian Republic already has changed appreciably as a result of the army action in Lithuania. Censorship has been reimposed on the broadcast media and the Russian parliament has become much more hesitant to challenge Gorbachev.

Unlike the Baltic states, where independence has become a rallying cry, the democratic movement in the Russian Republic is relatively weak. Yeltsin, a leading reformer who is considered to be the most popular politician in the Soviet Union, was only elected chairman of the Russian parliament by a narrow majority last spring.

At that time, he appealed for a two-year "credit of confidence" to allow him to introduce much-needed economic reforms. If the standard of living of ordinary Russians continues to slide, as seems probable, Yeltsin's political position also is likely to deteriorate.

The show of force in the Baltic states and elsewhere is closely related to the precipitous decline of the Soviet economy. After months of indecision, the Gorbachev government appears to have finally steeled itself to announce sharp rises in the prices of food and consumer goods in the very near future. One reason why the army has been brought out onto the streets, patrolling the cities in joint teams with police, is to forestall an angry public backlash.

But while Gorbachev has demonstrated that he is a politician with an instinctive talent for getting out of tight spots, so far he has failed to come up with a coherent strategy for rescuing the Soviet Union from its deepening economic crisis, let alone preserving its superpower status into the next century.

Gorbachev's main strength as a political tactician -- his inclination to compromise -- also is his principal weakness as an economic strategist. He has consistently avoided the painful reforms needed to transform the Soviet Union's inefficient command economy into a free-market system, opting instead for a series of ineffectual half-measures.

Still, despite the anger and even disillusionment that both the reactionaries and the liberals feel toward Gorbachev, both camps seem to need him -- at least for the time being. It is in the conservatives' interest to support Gorbachev as long as he is moving, even slowly, in their direction. To attempt to unseat him now could provoke a divisive power struggle, perhaps even civil war, as well as destroy any hope of Western assistance for the Soviet economy.

The liberals, meanwhile, need the Soviet president as the last obstacle to a complete conservative victory. Many take the view that Gorbachev has demonstrated his limits as a reformist politician, a man still trying to figure out ways of saving communism when the only sensible course is to dismantle it. Even so, most recognize that Gorbachev's successor is more likely to be a general than a democrat, given the present balance of political forces.

In fact, rivals Gorbachev and Yeltsin also appear to need each other. Gorbachev needs Yeltsin, or someone like him, to counterbalance the power of a resurgent Communist Party, even though he seems convinced Yeltsin is an irresponsible politician determined to achieve supreme power. Yeltsin, for his part, has an interest in preserving the myth of a populist politician constantly persecuted by the Kremlin to help maintain his popularity.

The West faces a predicament similar to that of the Soviet reformers. The love affair with "Gorby" may be over, but the alternatives are not very attractive. For all his domestic failings, Gorbachev remains the Soviet leader who allowed Eastern Europe to go free.

"We have nowhere else to go," said a senior Western envoy here. "We're obliged to support Gorbachev as long as he keeps the hope of reform alive at all."