While Washington is busy defending Kuwait, a small nation swallowed by a powerful neighbor, Moscow is quietly sending troops into secessionist areas of its empire. The ostensible reason: to round up draft dodgers.

Young men performing alternative service in hospitals, as allowed by local law, will be forcibly enlisted in the Soviet army.In the Baltic states - which were independent nations as recently as 1939 - the troops have also occupied printing plants and surrounded some government buildings. Mikhail Gorbachev threatens to impose direct presidential rule, sidelining locally elected parliaments.

The real purpose is to smother these republics' drive for independence. If he weren't so preoccupied with saving Kuwait, maybe George Bush could come up with a more effective American response than signing off on $900 million in agricultural credits for Gorbachev.