The Kremlim is taking an extremely cautious line as it follows the latest talks between striking workers and the Communist Party in neighboring, strategic Poland.
The Soviets are dealing from a position of strength -- and of weakness as well. They can if necessary send in Soviet troops to quell any serious threat to Communist PArty rule in Poland and to ensure that Poland remains a dependable supply corridor between Soviet borders and the 19 Soviet tank and infantry divisions in East Germany.
But, sources here believe, they really don't want to if they can avoit it.
With the Polish party now talking to strikers about their demands for free trade unions and better working conditions, prospects are slightly improved that the Soviets can ride out the crisis next door as they did in 1956 (when Wladislaw Gomulka came to power amid worker unrest), in 1970 (when Edward Gierek replaced Gomulka in similar circumstances), and in 1976 (more worker unrest).
The Kremlin showed in Afghanistan how forcefully it could move when it believed its vital interests to be threatened.
And yet to confront the highly religious, cohesive, nationalistic Poles with brute force woudl be to invite a bloody struggle, to confirm its own lack of ability to set a worthwhile economic and social example, and to make nonsense of its hopes to turn the forthcoming meeting in Madrid of 35 European and North American nations into a diplomatic triumph.
These goals could all be sacrificed -- but only in the last resort and if seen to be absolutely necessary.
Since World War II the Soviets have sent troops into East Germany to put donw unrest (1953), into Hungary (twice in 1956), and into Czechoslovakia (1968). But never into Poland.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin is left with the possibility of giving Warsaw more economic aid to help Mr. Gierek ease food shortages.
And it has moved quickly to try to prevent its own people from learning too much about strikes by the very working class that is supposed to from the bedrock of the socialist order in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Among other things Moscow exports grain and oil to Poland. It charges high prices. It could offer more credits for industrial and agricultural aid, even though the Soviets themselves face severe meat shortages and industrial slowdowns.
This would not help Poland's enormous debt to Western countries (now close to , but it might ease Polish food shortages.
Until 1976 Poland exported food. Now it is a massive importer -- partly because ot produce Polish pork, state farmers feed hogs with precious grain, which has to be imported. Private Polish farmers traditionally ahve used potatoes as feed -- but lazier, less-motivated state workers prefer grain, which takes fewer workers to grow and it easier to handle.
Moscow is extremely concerned taht its own people be insulated from the news and the ideas from Polish workers out on strike.
It began jamming Russian-language broadcasts from the Voice of America, the BBC, and the German Deutsche Welle stations on Aug. 20 -- for the first time in seven years. The Soviets used more powerful domestic broadcasts on overseas stations' frequencies -- while blandly dismissing Western reports of the jamming as "inventions." V.O.A. director Mary Bitterman said all 14 hours of Russian-language broadcasts were jammed. In London, Gerard Mansell, managing director of the BBC's external broadcasting, called the jamming an "admission of weakness by the Soviet authorities." The British government plans a formal protest.
And the Soviet press has been extremely circumspect.
At this writing neither Pravda nor the official news agency Tass has even mentioned the word "strike." Nor had they printed any comment by Soviet and authorities themselves. Instead, Pravda and Tass have contented themselves with brief quotations from the Warsaw party newspaper, Trybuna Ludu.
Soviet readers have been told nothing about the number of Polish workers on strike. On Aug. 23, Tass quoted the Polish paper as saying the party and government were engaged in an energetic struggle agaisnt unrest caused by "negative phenomena." Earlier, Soviet national television referred to an address to the Polish people by party leader Gierek who resigned Aug. 24. Tass quoted Trybuna Ludu as calling for unbroken "rhythmical work," and later said the Polish press had referred to "work interruptions."
Soviet readers, skilled at searching between the lines, will draw their own conclusions. But unless they speak English, they will know no details.
The Kremlin dealth ruthlessly witha brief experiment in the Soviet Union at setting up a free trade union. Started in 1978 by a coal mining foreman in the Ukraine named Vladimir Khlebanov, it sputtered on for several months before Soviet authorities put Khlebanov in jail, then systematically arrested other followers.
That moment was designed to win, not political changes, but justice on the factory floor. Members told the Western press, including thsi correspondent, about alleged injustices, corruption, and wastage.
Despite widespread reports in the Western press, knowledgeable sources in Moscow discount the possiblity that strikes occurred in automobile plants on the Volga River and in the city of Gorky earlier this year. Apart from isolated cases in a handful of cities, the Soviet Union has apparently seen no organized strikes in recent history.
Yet the Kremlin is most concerned that striking Polish workers could set an example to Soviet workers. Hence the jamming of western boradcasts.
Nor has the Kremlim denounced the Polish strikers. They are workers, not intellectual dissidents who can more easily be branded as anti-state and anti-party.
As for Soviet relations with Poland, they, too, demand circumspection in Moscow. The Kremlin has seen worse dissention in Poland than the current strikes and still has not invaded -- though in his memoirs, the late Nikita Khrushchev describes tense scenes in 1956 in which the Soviet leadership (according to him) moved units of its armed forces toward the Polish border.
Soveit intervention in Hungary and Czhechoslovakia showed that Moscow took such steps only after long deliberation and many efforts to solve crises without force. The force is always there, always in the background, as is the gigantic, brooding presence of the Soviet Union itself.
Until the ice breaks in the Kremlim, there can be no real thaw in Eastern Europe, Western sources agree. The Polish people have carved out for themselves only a limited degree of social and religious independence from the Soviet Union.
One reason the strikes have not spilled into the streets is that strikers and party alike want toa voit provoking Soviet wrath.
Moscow wants to aboid another intervention so soon after its move into Afghanistan. It wants to keep on trying to split the US from its European allies in NATO over such issues as medium-range nuclear missiles.
But Moscow will act if it feels it has no alternative. Though that point seems distant at the moment. Everyone concerned with the Polish crisis knows it only too well.