WHEN Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev looked to the West for billions in hand-outs, he got them. When Baltic leaders looked to the West for protection against Mr. Gorbachev's army in the last month, they got worn out words and not much more. As recent as Dec. 10, Lithuania's President Landsbergis pleaded with President Bush to intercede with the Soviets - warning that last weekend's siege was fast approaching - a plea that went unanswered.
By the time tanks and paratroops had already moved into Lithuania, words from Washington were too little, too late, and too impotent. Secretary of State James Baker's response Sunday contained great feeling, but little substance.
It is ironic that on the afternoon before Soviet tanks and paratroopers slaughtered 13 unarmed students during the siege of Vilnius Radio and TV, it was Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin and the presidents of the Soviet republics who expressed the greatest outrage.
On the day that Soviet tanks and troops moved into Lithuania last week, the US State Department called it ``provocative and counter-productive.'' But later in the afternoon Washington put the last touches on a $900 million aid package to Moscow.
When Lithuanian President Vytautus Landsbergis telephoned the Kremlin last Thursday to plea for his besieged nation, he was told that Gorbachev was eating lunch and could not be disturbed. Mr. Gorbachev, however, chatted with US President Bush moments later, offering support in the Persian Gulf and ``innovative'' diplomatic maneuvers.
Although Bush would not comment further on his talk with Gorbachev, except to say both were ``in sync in the Gulf,'' the following day's violence in Lithuania provides insight into their conversation. They appear to be accessories in each other's war.
The invasion and takeover in Lithuania was incremental and followed a familiar pattern.
First a round-up of high school age draft resistors, then the seizure of buildings, followed by the taking of the railways, broadcast media, and finally a siege on the Parliament. Although enough Soviet firepower is permanently stationed in defenseless Lithuania to overtake the Parliament building in a matter of hours, the script called for the Red Army to first create nationwide chaos and disorder with terrorism - as a pretense for Gorbachev's presidential rule.
Gorbachev first offered threats and gave ultimata. But is is a mistake to think he was warning the Lithuanians - giving them time to prepare or decide. He was throwing down his mark to governments of the West and waiting for a response. When none of real substance came, he took another step - just as he did in Lithuania last spring.
Gorbachev was not looking for answers from Vilnius. He was waiting for implicit approval from the West. And along with his billions in western charity, that's exactly what he received.
This week's takeover in Lithuania was long-planned and only awaited the ripe moment. Puppet governments were organized by Moscow months ago to install after the democratically elected Parliament would be deposed. The script was written, the cast was ready and the cues came from the Kremlin.
And Gorbachev, like Stalin in 1940 in the Baltics and Khrushchev in 1956 in Hungary, delayed only until the world was preoccupied with war.
Although the Kremlin now denies responsibility for the severity of the crackdown, all evidence points to Moscow. In the middle of the last week, coordinated media misinformation about Lithuania began throughout the Soviet Union. The anti-independence movement was exaggerated and justification for the brutality was explained as a reaction to Lithuanian attacks on the military. Without approval and planning from the highest level of the Kremlin, this kind of public relations distortion so far in advance would be impossible.
Contrary to Soviet rhetoric, what Moscow is doing in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is not about the military, the rights of ethnic minorities, restoring order, or safeguarding the Soviet Constitution. It is about preserving the conquests of the Soviet empire. For whatever adjustments in foreign policy or economics the Soviets have made, the fundamental belief in the empire has not budged.
Beginning last spring, after Lithuania declared a restoration of independence, the West has sacrificed support of the Baltics our of loyalty to Gorbachev - despite each example that the hope of perestroika was becoming an illusion.
So strong was this illusion that even while Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners were being trained by the Soviet High Command in Riga, Latvia, as late as mid-November, Moscow's cooperation in the Gulf was nonetheless praised.
Events in the Soviet Union in the last month, marked by the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze to protest the impending dictatorship, underscores that not even the myth remains.
Shevardnadze, a Georgian, made a decision between countrymen and empire - a choice of blood over dogma. The US and the West, by their response to these latest Soviet attacks, likewise made a choice.
The Soviet crackdown in the Baltics was not inevitable. If full diplomatic recognition were given to these democratically elected governments long ago - for which Lithuania has appealed - and every cent of aid to the Soviets and membership in the IMF were tied to Moscow's commitment to Baltic self-determination, then this week's blood would have remained only in the dreams of the generals.