The explosive situation in Poland could have the gravest consequences for overall East-West relations if it got out of hand. Any direct Soviet military intervention to reassert communist control of the country's disgruntled striking workers would have a far more devastating effect on US-Soviet relations than did last winter's Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And if there were Soviet intervention, Polish resistance would almost certainly be more widespread than when Soviet troops intervened once before -- in 1956 at the time of the first of the Polish workers' post-World War Ii outbreaks of dissidence.
Every party to the current crisis is aware of these facts -- and of the likelihood that Moscow would move if direct intervention seemed the only way to preserve communist government in Poland and Poland's loyalty to the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact alliance. The Soviet leadership's sensitivity to developments in Poland is unique because of the latter's geographical situation as the only buffer between the Soviet border and the two Germanys, and therefore astride the main Soviet communications and supply routes to the line of superpower confrontation in Europe.
Yet the likely embarrassing consequences for the Soviet Union of military action in Poland are presumably having a constraining effect on the Kremlin. The Soviet leadership is still interested in an eventual strategic arms control treaty with the US. And next month it faces in Madrid the conference that is to monitor implemetation of the accords reached at the 1975 Helsinki conference on European security.
Significantly, both the US and Soviet governments have till now avoided any comment likely to exacerbate the tensions in Poland. So, too, has the Vatican -- where a Polish Pope presides. The Vatican, in one sense, has as direct an interest in the crisis as has the Kremlin because of the strength of Poland's Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church is the only national organization recognized within Poland outside the overall umbrella of the Communist Party.
Another outside party with a vital interest ina a resolution of the Polish crisic without major explosion is West Germany. Poland plays a key role in the West German Ostpolitik launched by former Chancellor Willy Brandt and pursued by his successor, Helmut Schmidt. Polish leader Edward Gierek was to have met Mr. Schmidt in Hamburg this week, but Mr. Gierek cancelled the trip at the last minute because of the crisis on his hands at home.
But there was some comfort for Mr. Gierek from West Germany last week. A group of 25 West German banks agreed on a $675 million loan to Poland -- less than the Polish government wanted, but more than it had expected to get. An additional Eurodollar credit of $320-$325 million to Poland was due to be signed in London this week, with the Bank of American the most prominent of the contributors to the total advance.
Every little bit will help Mr. Gierek. At the end of last year, Poland had a greater hard-currency indebtedness to the West ($19.4 million) than did the Soviet Union itself ($16 million). There are rumors that the Soviet Union lent Poland $1 billion in hard currency earlier this year. If Moscow did do this, it shows a Kremlin sensitivity to the need to help Mr. Gierek wth his problems.
These problems have an economic genesis. It was a rise in meat prices on July 1 that started the round of trouble that has escalated ever since. But as the workers pressed their grievances on a widening front, political demands were added to those for economic relief.
Mr. Gierek's response has been the traditional carrot and stick -- initially more carrot than stick, pay increases for first one striking group and then another. Now, to the political demands he is responding with more stick than carrot.
If he is to survive without Soviet intervention, he needs to keep separated the economic demands from the political and to get the workers in the last resort to accept the separation. He still has leeway, albeti at heavy cost to Poland's economy, to move toward satisfying the economic demands. Satisfaction of the political demands without undermining the communist system is an altogether different question.
The Sunday Times of London quoted a strike leader in the Gdansk shipyard as saying at the weekend: "We feel that we could bring the present regime to its knees -- but all we want is for our justified demands to be met."