MOSCOW — President Mikhail S. Gorbachev believes a commando raid in Lithuania could have been an attempt to poison the atmosphere before his meeting with Western industrial leaders in London next month, his spokesman said Thursday.
Troops of an elite force responsible to conservative Interior Minister Boris K. Pugo took over the central telephone exchange in Vilnius on Wednesday, cutting communications from the breakaway republic for several hours.
Presidential spokesman Vitaly I. Ignatenko said Gorbachev had been informed immediately about the incident and had ordered Pugo to investigate.
"It is hard to get away from the impression that someone is trying by such provocative actions to spoil the atmosphere before the Soviet president's meeting with leaders of the Group of Seven in London," Ignatenko said in a statement to Soviet media.
The spokesman made clear he is representing Gorbachev's own views of the incident, latest of a series in the three separatist Baltic republics that have soured the Kremlin's relations with the West.
Gorbachev is due to meet the leaders of the seven top industrial nations (known as G-7) in three weeks to present his case for an ambitious program of Western aid and investment to speed reform of the crumbling Soviet economy.
France and the United States, both G-7 members, condemned the raid.
The White House said Thursday that the United States has lodged a formal protest.
"Although this building was apparently only occupied for a few hours, it does represent an unwarranted and unacceptable level of intimidation which we condemn," presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters.
Fitzwater said U.S. Ambassador Jack F. Matlock Jr. had delivered a diplomatic note protesting the action to the Soviet Foreign Ministry on Wednesday night.
The United States has never recognized Moscow's annexation of the Baltic regime and has consistently urged the Kremlin to resolve its dispute with Lithuania through dialogue.
Asked if the incident could affect prospects for a summit between President Bush and Gorbachev later this summer, Fitzwater said the Kremlin's handling of the Baltic crisis "has an impact on our overall relationship with the Soviet Union and our attitude toward reform."