Washington — Will they or won't they? One of the West's leading experts on the Soviet armed forces believes they won't.
Prof. John Erickson of Edinburgh University in Scotland maintains it is highly unlikely that Soviet forces will storm into Poland -- unless public order breaks down, which he sees no sign of it doing. "Firstly, you can't occupy the country, and secondly, if you do, it will be very difficult to get the workers back to work," he declares.
It is not a view shared by all experts.
Reached at his home in the Scottish capital, Professor Erickson observes that "the indicators of [Soviet] action are simply not there. It is not apparent that the competency of the polish Communist Party has collapsed. They're still more or less in command. Poland has not withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact [or] from the Comecon system."
In his view Moscow would unleash its division on its Polish satellite only if law and order broke down in the country and Warsaw requested the Kremlin's help. "As far as I know, there's no sign of that," he says.
"I'm fed up and disgusted with the Western press," Professor Erickson goes on. "It seems to me that they are almost atavistically wanting Soviet armed divisions to roll into Poland. It's shameful."
He claims the West has overexaggerated the movement of Soviet troops in the region. "I was reading the Yugoslav press this morning since I read Serbo-Croatian, one of my part-time hobbies. The Yugoslavs are a little concerned about this but they do not take too seriously the movement of one Czech division and a Soviet division up to the north." He says he would "go along with [Zbigniew] Brzezinski who countermanded President Carter's talk about an unprecedented buildup at all.There is a buildup clearly, but it's probably percentage-wise less than that for Czechoslovakia."
If a breakdown of public order were to occur in Poland, says Professor Erickson, Warsaw would have two options: "The first element they would put in is the paramilitary security forces, as they did in 1970. After that, if things really go wrong, the Polish Army goes in."
But he adds that "What the Polish Army's never wanted to do is to be torn between the concept of the state and nation." The use of the army to supress any disorders, he feels, would be "a very last resort," as would be an appeal for Soviet military assistance.
In essence, Professor Erickson believes Soviet leaders are anxious that warsaw should put its own house in order. "They have given $1 billion worth of credit to the poles to buy food in the West," he notes, "and they seem to support [Polish United Workers' Party leader Stanislaw] Kania and I think they will be quite pleased that [former Interior Minister Gen. Mieczyslaw] Moczar is back in the government. I think the've given their word and their backing to the Polish leadership. They're giving them another crack of the whip."
In his view the real problem in Poland at the moment is not the possibility of Russian tanks rolling in, but the country's ubiquitous food shortages, and by extension, its dangerous economic condition.
Any Russian invasion of Poland, Professor Erickson observes, would require 60 divisions, "if you wanted to do the job properly." At the moment the Soviet Union has 33 divisions in its Western regions; 21 in East Germany; five in Czechoslovakia; and two in Poland.