The effective end of the Polish labor strikes has given rise to the popular impression that the potential of a Soviet military intervention has greatly diminished. But if the history of past Soviet military interventions is any guide, such complacency regarding the prospect of a Soviet invasion of Poland is at best premature.
The key question is whether the reforms agreed to, and any that may follow, will be viewed in Moscow as threats to communist rule in Poland.
Since the end of the World War II, there have been four specific occasions on which the Soviet Army has been used to ensure the political primacy of the communist parties of allegedly independent Soviet neighbors.
In June of 1956 labor unrest in Poland -- spawned by low wages and poor living standards -- exploded into violence. The Polish government recognized that the roots were only a symptom of a more fundamental breakdown in relations between the government and the population. Economic reforms and changes in the communist party leadership followed. The Soviet Union, however blamed the troubles in Poland on "outside agitators, anti-socialist events, and foreign influences."
Some five months later -- after things had quited down in Poland -- the Soviet Union used its armed forces in an effort to reverse developments in Poland. Aside from Soviet divisions already based in Poland, several Soviet Army divisions were ordered into Poland from the USSR and East Germany. In the North, Soviet naval units appeared in the Gulf of Danzig (Gdansk). Only a combination of solemn pledges by the Polish government to toe the Soviet foreign and military policy lines, Polish threats of popular armed resistance, and events in Hungary spared Poland a full-scale invasion and occupation.
During the summer of 1956 Hungary moved towards political liberalization. The Hungarian government permitted the formation of noncommunist political parties and then announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. In November, four months after the Hungarian reforms began, the Soviet Army invaded Hungary. Between Oct. 23 and Nov. 4 the number of Soviet troops in Hungary jumped from 20 ,000 to 200,000.
The story is much the same for Czechoslovakia in 1968. At first, the Czech political liberalization that began in the spring of 1968 seemed acceptable to the Soviets. But as time passed, those reforms -- carried to their logical end -- came to be viewed as threats to communist rule. In August the Soviet Union led a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia -- four months after the first expression of Soviet concern -- ultimately employing about 300,000 Soviet troops and an additional 100,000 Warsaw Pact troops.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 reflects a similar logic. The Soviet military moved in, but only after puppet Amin had had several months to pull things together himself.
What this brief history suggests is that the Soviet leadership does not act rashly or impulsively. They observe, they assess, they analyze the risks. They do not rush in at the first sign of trouble. If anything, they seem to wait for the lastm clear chance -- accepting some risk -- before resorting to military force.
But risks run both ways. Certainly there is the risk that a military intervention will spiral out of all proportion and even backfire. However, there is also the risk that without direct Soviet armed intervention a socialist ally could be lost, with all the attendant implication for Moscow's other satellites. It takes time to decide where the dominant risk lies.
Some find consolation in Soviet statements approving the nature of the Polish strike settlement. It should be pointed out, however, that in each of the previous instances of Soviet intervention the Soviet government had signaled apparent approval of ongoing developments. Yet in the end the Soviet Army marched in.
There is an interesting aspect to the timing of past Soviet interventions. In 1956 the Soviet military interventions in Eastern Europe coincided with British and French invasions of Egypt, greatly reducing Western military strength.In 1968 the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia occured while the US was rapidly escalating its involvement in the Vietnam war -- drawing down its European military stocks in the process. And in 1979, Soviets troops rolled into Afghanistan while the US was preoccupied with the taking of American hostages in Iran. Diversionary opportunities seem to present themselves rather frequently.
A large-scale military intervention requires a substantial amount of preparation. In both the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan the Soviets were observed to have begun mobilization of military units almost three months beforehand. The extent to which this lead time can be attributed to real logistical constraints, or simply political restraint, is not known. But certainly the kind of armed resistance the Russians would expect to meet in Poland -- the populace and perhaps the Polish Army -- requires extensive planning and preparation. Even if the Soviets did want to move into Poland today, could they now bring to bear the kind of overwhelming force they prefer?
What this all suggests is that the risk of a Soviet invasion of Poland is, only now, starting to rise. Whether or not Soviet troops do indeed move in will depend on how several key questions are resolved. Can the Polish government paper over the appearance that an independent and noncommunist center of political power has emerged? Can the Polish governmentt backtrack on its agreements enough to mollify Soviet fears but little enough not to provide new strikes? Will the success of the strikes lead to more far-reaching demands? Will the Polish reforms spread to Poland's East Europeans neighbors? And, most important, at what point is this perceived challenge to communist authority and Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe no longer tolerable in Moscow?
It has been observed that "the opera ain't over until the fat lady sings." This Polish opera isn't over yet.