The Kremlin late March 8 seemed faced with some distinctly unappetizing policy alternatives on two fronts hundreds of miles apart: neighboring Poland, and an airport runway in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
In the best of all possible Soviet worlds, the Polish communist leadership would yet sort out its own troubles, while the Soviet-installed rulers of Afghanistan would win a measure of international recognition by deftly defusing the March 2 hijacking of a Pakistani airliner to Kabul.
But at this writing -- on the evening of March 8, Moscow time -- news from both crisis points must have seemed to Soviet leaders at least unencouraging.
The Kabul hijack, although of lesser magnitude than the continuing Polish crisis, is one of the longest hijacks on record and has already claimed the life of a Pakistani diplomat aboard the pirated airliner. Washington was pressing the Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and established a regime of their own liking in Kabul, to resolve the crisis.
[Reuters cited a Soviet news dispatch that the hijacked plane had left for an unknown destination.]
In Poland, an apparent crackdown on prominent political dissidents March 5 and 6 seemed to be just what the Kremlin ordered. The move followed a Soviet-Polish summit in Moscow March 4 and had been all but telegraphed by persistent attacks on the dissidents carried in the official Soviet news media.
But although Poland's labor union leadership March 8 still seemed to prefer negotiation over confrontation with the Warsaw government on the dissident issue , there was no indication that eventual talks would necessarily yield compromise. Meanwhile, local union leaders planned a "warning strike" for March 10 in the Polish industrial city of Lodz, potentially threatening a cooling-off period sought by the government.
In both Kabul and Warsaw, the Kremlin appeared to face increasingly difficult choices.
Conceivably, Moscow could try to intervene directly in the hijack crisis in graphic refutation of Reagan administration charges that the Soviets have been abetting "international terrorism" -- allegations hotly denied by the Moscow media.
But superpowerdom is central to the Soviet self-image. What if such intervention were to backfire, leading to further bloodshed? Comparisons would inevitably be drawn with the Israelis' rescue raid at Entebbe, Uganda; the West Germans' successful assault on a hijacked jet in Mogadishu, Somalia; and -- perhaps worse from the Soviet point of view -- with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's bungled raid on a hijacked plane in Cyprus.
Moreover, there appeared excellent foreign policy reasons for the Soviet Union to avoid open intervention in the hijack orderal.
The Soviets have long sought to play down their military presence in Afghanistan and their role in running that country, looking instead for international recognition for the regime they installed there.
But in the event of a fresh erosion of Communist Party power in Poland, a subject on which renewed Soviet concern was expressed March 8, the Kremlin seems reluctantly ready to escalate its direct involvement in the Polish crisis.
With Warsaw Pact troops still reported poised on Poland's frontiers, Moscow has been reaffirming the doctrine used to justify military intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 -- that a threat to "socialism" in any East-block state threatens the entire bloc.