WASHINGTON — AS disturbed as President Bush says he is over Soviet actions in Lithuania, US-Soviet relations are unlikely to suffer badly. American concern is simply far greater over the outcome of the Persian Gulf confrontation, where Soviet cooperation is vital.
For weeks, a series of strains has been quietly pressing on the US-Soviet relationship. On Sunday, the American rhetoric condemning the violent Soviet military crackdown on the elected government of Lithuania grew sharp.
Yet, while the president and his top advisers found the Soviet action ``deeply disturbing,'' the only hint of action was a vague comment from chief of staff John Sununu on CBS-TV's ``Face the Nation'': ``This crackdown certainly jeopardizes the capacity of the Soviet Union to continue to receive support from ... Western Europe and the United States.''
However disturbed by Soviet action, the US may not be able to afford alienating the Soviets just now.
Tactically, the Soviets could not have staged a violent and unpopular crackdown at a better time. Americans are at the brink of war in the Gulf. The war has the backing of the UN, largely through the cooperation of the Soviets. Should war arise, the Soviets are unlikely to play an important role. But their cooperation in stabilizing the region afterward will be critical.
``The war will be relatively trivial compared to the monumental political task when it's over,'' says Jerry Hough, a Sovietologist with the Brookings Institution and Duke University. If the Soviets were to play spoiler to US influence, as during the Brezhnev years, then political stability could be difficult to achieve, he says.
President Bush, in condemning Soviet actions Sunday, also emphasized Soviet cooperation in the Middle East. ``That's all that matters to us now,'' Dr. Hough says.
Bush spoke of the importance of continued reform in the Soviet Union to the ``new international order.'' But he has also made it the first major business of that new order to reverse the aggression of Iraq.
National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was the first administration figure to speak out Sunday after Soviet troops killed more than a dozen Lithuanians this weekend. His first comment, on NBC-TV's ``Meet the Press,'' was to remark the parallel with 1956, when the Western world was absorbed in the Suez Canal crisis while Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary.
American officials were jolted in Paris last November when, upon signing the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty with the Soviets, they found the Soviets were reporting far fewer weapons than Americans were convinced they had. More recently, reports have surfaced that the Soviets shipped tanks east of the Ural Mountains so that the treaty would not force their destruction, but now are rolling them west again.
White House officials have added some unspecified problems in negotiating a Strategic Arms Reduction Talks treaty lately, hinting that a Bush-Gorbachev summit in Moscow next month may be postponed.