AMID the noise and dust of the Saudi desert, few notice that Mikhail Sergeyevich is out Baltic-bashing again. While the newspapers are debating the merits of the blockade against Iraq, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is planning a blockade of his own - not in the Persian Gulf, but around Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Gorbachev's spokesman, Soviet Prime Minister Nicolai Ryzhkov, recently set an ultimatum for the Baltics: Sign the new federation treaty and abandon the drive for independence or face what will amount to an embargo.
This is no new addition to the Soviet repertoire. The two-month rehearsal last spring cost Lithuania nearly 20 percent of its national product.
What makes this new Soviet threat despicable is its juxtaposition with Gorbachev's plea to the West for humanitarian aid. He begs the West for aid so democracy will not short circuit this winter in the Soviet Union, yet plans an embargo in the Baltics because democracy there is ahead of schedule.
And the fund-raiser is going well. In the last few weeks, Gorbachev has received more than $25 billion in aid and investment credits from Spain, South Korea, and Germany. Britain pledged almost $40 million in technical assistance. Pledges of food aid from the European Community, the US, Japan, and others have been coming in at a fast clip.
But Gorbachev has lots of help with his begging. The Soviet bailout was high on the unofficial agenda at last month's Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Paris. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl leads the Western effort and called upon the United States and the European community to assist with food, medical supplies, and technical support this winter.
Germany's motives, though suspect, are at least explainable. Much of their aid - some $20 billion - will help pay the ransom to remove the Red Army from what was once East Germany. Soviet oil is attractive, compared with that coming from the distant and volatile Persian Gulf. A joint venture is already in the works with the Soviets to use the Lithuanian seaport of Klaipeda on the Baltic Sea. Except no one, neither German nor Soviet, bothered to ask the Lithuanians.
``This is just another example where our sovereignty is, in principle, constantly recognized, but in practice, always ignored - and not just by Moscow,'' explained Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis.
The US is expected to join the cavalcade to bail out Gorbachev this winter, which strikes Lithuania as yet another painful irony. On Oct. 26, the final day of Congress, a dawn conference committee meeting, the handiwork of Rep. David Obey, (D) of Wisconsin, killed a bill which would have sent several million dollars in humanitarian assistance to Lithuania. The bill, which had overwhelming Senate approval, sought to counteract the impact of Gorbachev's spring blockade. The funds were earmarked for medical basics such as disinfectant and insulin. A Senate aide who visited Lithuania this fall described conditions in the hospitals as ``a wartime triage tent.''
Congressman Obey, however, explained that giving Lithuania a few truckloads of bandages and medicine might ``tend to destabilize the Baltic negotiations.'' There was a twisted accuracy to his remarks. According to Lithuanian negotiators, rejection of the aid package ``stabilized'' the talks considerably. When the talks began in October, Moscow was willing, in principle, to bargain bilaterally. But the Lithuanian deputy prime minister described a marked Kremlin hostility and sarcasm after Washington's snub.
Though awkward for the West to remember, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are not interested in any legitimate union with the Soviets. Following a deal cut with Germany as a prelude to World War II, the Red Army invaded these independent members of the League of Nations. Family farms were seized, property was stolen, and a million people were exiled to Siberia. The scenario bore great resemblance to Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait, except the Baltic invasion was on a larger scale and world response was negligible. But there is no international statute of limitations on such war crimes.
It is convenient for the Europe and the US to welcome the ending of the cold war and the resolution of the consequences of World War II. But it is simply inaccurate. Baltic independence is yet outstanding. The capitulation to Gorbachev's threat to walk out of the CSCE conference if the Balts attended as guests underscores that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are on their own.
``We have become like the Jews in the concentration camps at the end of the war. If we can survive long enough, our captors will disintegrate by themselves,'' explained Mr. Landsbergis.
For these small nations, patience is the only weapon left: Wait until the Soviet empire can no longer hold on.
The West is missing a key opportunity to prod the Soviets. At a time when even bread is in short supply in Moscow and Leningrad, the Kremlin is in no position to bargain for anything. Appeasing Gorbachev by abandoning the Baltics is simply poor card-playing: Trading three queens for a single deuce.
The West should not forget any of the survivors of a dying Soviet system this winter, but with equal humanity they must remember the Baltics. Unless aid to the USSR is directly tied to their unconditional release, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia will be further sealed inside the Soviet Union - the rubble of the Berlin Wall raised higher a few hundred miles eastward.