THE standoff between the Soviet Union and Lithuania is a month old. Moscow's oil and gas embargo of the breakaway republic is in its second week. Few real signs of compromise can yet be seen. What both parties are showing is how serious the game of change in the Soviet bloc has become. Mikhail Gorbachev must at some point let Lithuania go. The state was unjustly annexed in 1945; it should be independent.
But Gorbachev is showing just how high the price will be. He let Eastern Europe go last year. That was one of history's biggest giveaways. But Gorbachev can't afford simply to let the Baltics and other republics walk out the door in an afternoon. It could mean his demise - and political chaos. He's already having to finesse the news to the Russians that their two historic enemies - NATO and Germany - are really OK and are about to merge in Europe.
President Bush and leaders such as Fran,cois Mitterand of France understand this. Their position of wait-and-see (hedged by a slowdown in trade credits) is correct. It's a ``greater good'' argument: If the changes in Russia over the past five years are serious and meaningful (and they are), then in this case the larger cause of stability in the Soviet Union, and ties between the world's superpowers, can't be quickly jeopardized over a just but lesser cause. Patience now may bring greater freedom for all - Latvia and Estonia included. All parties need to avoid, not trigger, a Tiananmen Square.
At the same time one notes with more than admiration the moral resolve of the Lithuanians. They too want to show how serious they are. They too deserve support - constant pressure from the West on Gorbachev to end this crisis, to compromise. The resolve of the Lithuanians should bring Gorbachev to switch his timetable from five to two years on Lithuanian independence. This is reasonable. If the window of opportunity can't stay open that long, how real is it anyway?
Neither side can afford this embargo and stalemate. The Soviet Union loses $3 million a month in precious hard currency on the inoperative Lithuanian oil refinery. CIA testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress last Friday noted that in January and February alone, the Soviet Union lost more hours of work due to ethnic strikes and labor disputes than in all of 1989.
Compromise is possible. If Lithuania obtains credit from the West, maybe so much the better for Gorbachev. He can retain strategic bases there. Both sides: Find a progressive middle ground.