On Sunday 13 January, in Vilnius, Lithuania, “Bloody Sunday,” Soviet troops stormed the television tower and other public buildings. Fourteen Lithuanians, men and women, were killed. On 20 January in Riga, Latvia, “Black Beret”Soviet troops stormed the Interior Ministry, killing five Latvians. The United States and world opinion were outraged: if these methods – the tactics of Tianamen Square – were used against every republic seeking independence, bloodbath would succeed bloodbath.
The orders for the crackdown in Vilnius were said to come “from the very top,” but Gorbachev, after the first killings, got cold feet and ordered a stop to the operation. Urged to go to Vilnius, Gorbachev was told his security there could not be guaranteed. He stayed in Moscow, speaking to the Supreme Soviet, defending what had been done and refusing to condemn the use of force. On 21 January, Gorbachev did condemn brutality, and promised to punish those responsible. He was walking a tightrope between hard-liners who wanted a Union-wide crackdown on all forces opposed to the centre and reformists who were for change at whatever cost to the Soviet state. Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin, as parliamentary leader of Russia signed a mutual security pact with the Baltic states.
A summit meeting between Gorbachev and Bush, planned for February, was abandoned as East-West relations deteriorated. Even though the Soviet Union had voted with the United Nations to support the use of force against Iraq, Gorbachev was conscious of Soviet ties to the country and of hard-line opposition to US gunboat diplomacy. He tried to persuade the United States to stay its hand and allow him time to work on the Iraq issue.
Source: Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press.