IN the theatrical world of international power politics, good timing can often mean the difference between international silence and international condemnation. Thus far, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has given a skilled performance. With the very survival of the Soviet state possibly at stake, he is picking his moves against the Kremlin's separatist opponents carefully. Now, with war in the Persian Gulf, Mr. Gorbachev is using a freer hand in dealing with his domestic opponents. Indeed, a general crackdown in the USSR should not be surprising if and when a ground war breaks out.
On Jan. 7, Gorbachev began sending elite military forces into six republics - shortly after the US Congress announced it would debate Gulf policy. On Jan. 9, with US Secretary of State Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz meeting in Geneva, Gorbachev issued an ultimatum to the Baltic states - submit to his legal authority. Approximately four hours after the Geneva talks failed, he gave the go-ahead to the Ministry of Defense to conduct provocative maneuvers. At the height of the debate in the US Congress a day later, Soviet troops opened fire and moved in to seize key installations in Lithuania. With the tensions focused on the Scud missile threat, Soviet troops stormed into Latvia.
Gorbachev hinted several months ago that a crackdown would probably coincide with developments in the Gulf. His choice of analogies when discussing US-Soviet cooperation against Saddam Hussein is telling in this regard. Often he compares the US-Soviet partnership to similar Soviet alliances against Germany during the Second World War and the Suez crisis of 1956.
The US-Soviet ``grand alliance'' in World War II not only defeated Hitler, it also gave Stalin the opportunity to swallow Central Europe, as the US was occupied with defeating Hitler and Japan. US criticism of Moscow's behavior during the course of the war was considered unthinkable by officials; after Hitler's defeat, criticism came too late.
Gorbachev's use of the Suez crisis as an analogy is even more revealing. The two superpowers - albeit for different reasons - did come down on the same side by condemning British, French, and Israeli aggression. But Gorbachev also knows that Suez served as a critical distraction within the world community, allowing Moscow to invade Hungary and reassert Soviet power. The West was preoccupied by events in the Middle East, and thus incapable of formulating an effective response to Moscow's brutal act. Dare we remember that Afghanistan was invaded during the height of the Iran hostage crisis?
Gorbachev's recent conversion to the use of force in the Gulf came as a pleasant surprise to Washington. US officials took it as ``a change of heart.'' But consider the sequence of events: It occurred on the heels of a series of important domestic challenges to Soviet power. Moldavia, the Ukraine, and the Baltics all disobeyed important decrees issued by the Soviet president; the new ``Union Treaty'' - the centerpiece of Gorbachev's nationalities policy - was openly rejected by the republics. Two weeks after his ``change of heart,'' Gorbachev made important personnel changes in the Soviet internal security forces and expanded their size by some 40,000.
Gorbachev is undoubtedly confident that criticism will be muted and US actions limited because of the important political role Moscow now plays in the anti-Saddam coalition. Moscow's presence on the UN Security Council means that its political support is necessary if that body continues to be the vehicle by which the international coalition is sustained. Gorbachev's endorsement of US policy shores up the broad-based (but weak) coalition.
A complete Soviet crackdown during the Gulf war would present the US with a dilemma: Condemn Moscow and see the coalition unravel and Soviet roadblocks erected, or remain silent and thereby proclaim that repression doesn't matter.
Preventing this possible dilemma requires that we be prepared to fight Saddam Hussein diplomatically and militarily without Moscow should we need to. Gorbachev must be convinced of our will to do so. We must also make clear that our focus on the Gulf is not singular; but rather that we are watching developments in the Soviet Union and that repressive actions will have consequences.