THE deployment of thousands of Soviet paratroopers to the Baltics and four other Soviet republics is the latest in a chilling series of authoritarian moves by Soviet President Gorbachev. Glasnost and perestroika awakened the long-dormant desire for liberation in the republics. Now Mr. Gorbachev, under pressure from the Soviet military, is trying to put the genie back in the bottle.
Independence moves in Moldavia and the Ukraine have been put down. A newspaper printing plant in Riga, Latvia, was taken over by rifle-toting Soviet troops last week asserting Communist Party control. An in-depth look at the resignation of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnaze on the popular Soviet news program ``Viewpoint'' has been canceled.
And maybe with good reason. The logic of Mr. Shevardnaze's sudden departure last month now becomes clearer. It does appear the darker Russian forces of centralization and of empire are - temporarily - winning out over liberal reform ideals. Paratroops in Vilnius and Riga are the proof. The troops may be there to enforce military conscription, but the larger issue is union. If the army can't force conscription, there's no army and hence no union. The result is ``democratization'' Soviet style: Cooperate happily in a consensual manner or we will knock your block off.
The use of force to stop food riots or violence may be excusable. The use of force to censor newspapers, or track down 17-year-olds is not acceptable.
No doubt Gorbachev would rather not resort to a crackdown. It seems, however, he can find no better way. The extent of his options is not clear; he may have been given a political ultimatum.
But the Kremlin must beware. Nationalist urges have proven in the past to be much stronger than bargained for. Army troops rounding up young men who don't want to serve a system they don't believe in is an inflammatory measure, to say the least. Before he knows it, Gorbachev may be facing a Tiananmen Square-like decision in the streets of Latvia or Lithuania.
Nor should Gorbachev assume that the West will buy the claim that Soviet use of force is legal under the Soviet Constitution. The West proved cooperative last spring as Soviet troops marched into Vilnius, thinking the long- term goal of Soviet reform would avert chaos and ultimately help republics become independent.
Today, the West won't buy that argument. The Kremlin has rejected radical economic reforms. Gorbachev has moved right.
Nor will this crackdown, orchestrated to take place as world attention is focused on the Persian Gulf crisis, go unnoticed.