Will the Soviet empire survive 1984?

Poland may well mark the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire. The most important link in the mailed vest guarding its western flank has become unhinged, portending an unraveling of the entire system.

The Kremlin finds itself in a no-win situation. To send troops against Poland would plunge all Europe into another Dark Ages; but nonintervention signals both a failure of will and of ability to control Eastern Europe.

Moscow's problems in imposing its will along Russia's borders produce much more serious consequences for Soviet imperial interests than America's defeat in Indochina for US positions abroad. None but a few ideologists imagined that American interests were seriously jeopardized by events in Indochina. But centuries have shown how vital is Poland to Russian security. Either Poland or Russia has usually dominated the other; but, if both were weak, Poland often served as the invasion route for Western armies.

Warsaw now threatens Moscow, not as before, by force of arms, but by its democratic upsurge against Soviet-style rule. Solidarity is more than a trade union or even a political party. It is a popular movement demanding self-rule as well as economic change. Though Lenin warned that the party must lead -- not tail -- the people, Solidarity has become the avant-garde, the party at best the tail.

Solidarity's transforming role, the revitalization of Poland's parliament, greater democracy within the party itself -- all these and other changes underway in Poland will elicit a domino ripple throughout Eastern Europe and even the USSR. "If the Poles can do their thing, so can we." This line of thinking will spread from one erstwhile satellite to another.

The Kremlin's failure of will abroad is certain to exacerbate control problems at home. For decades the Politburo has tolerated a degree of dissent and deviation unthinkable in Stalin's time. To be sure, the Soviet authorities violate their own legal norms in persecuting dissidents, but the overall picture shows them losing their grip. The regime commutes death sentences for treasonable acts, sometimes in response to foreign pressures. Army commanders discharge troublemakers rather than throw them in the brig and admit they can't maintain discipline. Prison wardens fear hunger strikes by rebellious inmates. Soviet psychiatrists balk at condemning sane men to psychoprisons lest they be ostracized by foreign peers. The Kremlin suppresses requests for emigration visas, but it has permitted an exodus of over 300,000 Jews and other minorities in the last decade, a flood compared to earlier times.

Why? All the concessions reflect systemic weakness. Moscow must beg, hat in hand, for the right to buy Western technology and grain. The leaders are exhausted from incessant struggle and from sheer age. They hold fast, having failed to introduce younger blood and innovative spirits into the leading ranks. Mindless momentum produces more missiles and tanks than needed; the system's genius is to take on such burdens as bailing out Cuba and Ethiopia (before being evicted, as in Egypt and much of Africa). All this stretches the system to the point where it is unable to cope with a real challenge to Soviet interests as in Poland.

As the empire unravels, the men who succeed Brezhnev will consider sterner measures to reassert Moscow's rule. This contingency was examined in simulations held at Boston University. Our scenarios focused on a Soviet succession crisis accompanied by independence movements in Eastern Europe and by demands for better living within the USSR. Hard-line leaders moved to the fore, backed by the military, but they chose to batten the hatches of internal stability rather than embark on foreign adventure. They saw that war against Poland could ignite popular unrest among related peoples of Belorussia and the Ukraine, just as an attack on Romania would stir ethnic unrest in Soviet Moldavia. They remembered the guerrilla warfare waged by Polish partisans against the Red Army in the 1940s, a picnic compared to the resistance heavily armed Poles could mount today.

Moscow's response to its disintegrating empire depends also on the carrots and sticks it perceives in the West. Reagan has wisely warned that invasion of Poland would kill arms talks and elicit severe economic sanctions. No need to crow now. Rather, we must show the Kremlin how it might gain from a world without empire. We must demonstrate a willingness to negotiate on nuclear arms, expanded trade, and other issues of great import to Moscow. The West would do well to show its willingness to pursue foreign policy without being the first to resort to arms.

We all have lessons to absorb about empire. Empire-building is exhilarating but costly, especially in resources diverted from domestic needs. Rule by diktat is not viable in this age of nationalism and transistor communication. Exploitation of one people by another may seem profitable for a time, only to boomerang in the long run. Russia's rebuff in Poland resembles that which the US suffered in Cuba a generation back.

The economies and fates of all peoples are vulnerable to each other, but free association based on mutual advantage is the only workable answer to the dilemmas of global interdependence.

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