The Polish crisis of 1980, which might easily have erupted into the most serious East-West confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis, appears to be subsiding.
But two important caveats are in order. First, this relaxation relates not to the longer-term complex of Polish problems, which will continue to be acute for an indefinite period, but to the immediate threat of Soviet military occupation. Second, the threat is only suspended; some explosive incident, or some accumulation of factors unacceptable to the Kremlin, could revive it suddenly tomorrow.
The agonizing problem for the Soviet Politburo is that there are, from its point of view, so many strong arguments both for and against intervention in Poland.
On the other hand, the Soviet leaders are aware, particularly after ther recent NATO meeting, that a military occupation of Poland would end for a long time prospects of reviving useful relations with the United States, including imports of grain and negotiations to reduce the dangers and costs of the arms race. It might also interrupt even more valuable imports of machinery and technology from Western Europe and Japan, as well as emphatically closing current rifts inside NATO.
The Soviets may doubt that economic sanctions against them would be comprehensive or long-enduring, but the unhealthy state of their economy would probably make even a temporary interruption in critical imports hard to bear. Moreover, even worse, they know from recent experience that behavior on their part perceived as outrageous by the West inevitably drives the US closer to China. They would have to take account of the likelihood that a military occupation of Poland could lead to American military aid to China. No prospect could seem more ominous to the Soviets than that one.
I myself doubt, nonetheless, that the Kremlin would be deterred from doing what they felt had to be done in Poland by anythingm the West might do. However, there are other even more troubling considerations.
The Poles would certainly not take an armed intervention lying down. There would be an explosive outburst of long suppressed anti-Soviet emotion, widespread strikes, armed resistance by the Polish Army, by impromptu "freedom fighters," or both. All this could certainly be overcome by the Red Army, but there would be two very disagreeable consequences.
First, the lines of communication with East Germany and the NATO front, which would be a main object of the intervention to safeguard, might become even more precarious. If the whole Polish nation were antagonized by Soviet armed repression, accompanied by serious bloodshed, how could the Kremlin thereafter count on the cooperation of the Polish Army or the security of this line of communication, if war with the West ever should break out?
Second, the shock at the spectacle of the slaughter of Polish workers by the "fatherland of the proletariat" would be so great -- not only in the West, including its communist parties, but in much of the third world -- as to undermine, perhaps decisively, the spurious image of the Soviet Union as the leader of "progressive" mankind.
These are very powerful considerations but, on the other hand, how can the Kremlin tolerate the alternative? True enough, thanks to the admonitions of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the prudence of the new leadership of the Polish workers, and the flexibility of the Polish communist party, the internal situation may be stabilized for the moment. There may be for a time no more major strikes or political demands; work may be resumed and some reforms implemented.
None of the underlying political or economic problems, however, is likely to be rebornly attached to their authority and priveleges and secretly encouraged by the Soviets, will attempt to sabotage the more substantive reforms. The workers and farmers, supported by much of the population, will be constantly tempted to demand more, particularly if the economic situation continues to worsen. The Polish spirit and temperament are irrepressible.
Yet can the Kremlin permit a situation in Poland which, if the reforms are sustained, would be a constant temptation to other East Europeans and even to Russians to demand the same rights and priveleges? Or on the other hand -- could it tolerate a long period of disorder and challenge to communist authority in Poland? Would not either of these situations seem to the Politburo to threaten the very existence of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, even of the consensus inside the Soviet Union itself which enables the regime to stay in power?
This is the agonizing dilemma which the Politburo faces and which, despite delay and frantic improvisation, it can hardly escape indefinitely.
It may, as I said earlier, decide to move troops in massively tomorrow. More likely, if the situation worsens again, would be a less conspicious involvement -- introduction of troops to engage in "maneuvers" with the Polish Army; more comprehensive infiltration and control of the Polish security forces, and a more vigorous crackdown by them on "anti-socialist" elements; encouragement to the Polish party, while appearing to proceed with reform, actually but quietly to sabotage its implementation.
The Kremlin leaders would hope that in this way the Polish party, and through it themselves, would gradually be able to resume their traditional control and ultimately to snuff out the Polish "disease." This may be possible for a time but, as "the winds of change" accumulate more and more impetus, they cannot be permanently curbed.