Are Soviet divisions now massed along the Polish border for an invasion? Or will the threat of military action force Poland's labor radicals to compromise and forestall an attack?
Official Washington, while hoping for compromise, feels that Poland is moving toward greater instability -- and an eventual invasion by those Soviet troops.
Washington's apprehension lies behind the blunt warnings issued to the Soviet Union in recent days by spokesmen both for the Carter administration and for President-elect Ronald Reagan.
What convinces US officials that those troops might eventually be used against Poland is a growing conviction that the Polish labor movement is rolling out of control.
At the State Department, analysts foresee a fairly rapid process of "destabilization" in Poland. The number of "pessimists" predicting an eventual invasion has grown. Said one State Department official: "Certainly the momentum of events is in the direction of greater instability."
At the Pentagon, a number of Defense Department analysts are saying that a Soviet invasion is a "probability" and that it could take place within a matter of weeks. Intelligence analysts are reported to support this conclusion.
But most analysts caution that the Soviets could be using their reported troop maneuvers, at this stage at least, for impact short of an invasion.
"They might be trying to send warning signals to the Poles," said a State Department official. "They might be trying to scarce the labor radicals and stiffen the backbone of the government . . . . At the same time, they may be readying themselves for potential requirements."
Militating against a Soviet invasion are a number of factors. To start with, as one American defense analyst points out, Polish resistance to any invasion could be expected to be "substantial and protracted." Some Polish army units would be expected to turn against the Russians while others remained neutral.
The Poles have a long history of underground resistance to outsiders. Teenagers who fought warsaw street battles against the Nazis now are men in their 50s, still capable of leading a fight.
Poland, everyone agrees, would be a much tougher nut to crack for the Soviets than was Czechoslovakia in 1968. In addition to its proud history of resistance , Poland has more than twice the population of Czechoslovakia.
An invasion could mean the end of East-West detente and, of course, East-West trade for some considerable time to come. And given Poland's food shortages and sizable debts to the West, the Soviets would be taking on an enormous economic and financial burden in Poland. This they would be assuming at the very time when the Soviets themselves are suffering from new shortages and economic stresses.
Not everyone thinks a Soviet invasion is inevitable. Jane Curry, a specialist on Poland at Columbia University, points out that the Polish workers have carefully tailored many of their actions to stay within certain bounds. She also notes that within Poland itself there seems to be less apprehension about an invasion than there is in the West.
"In the end, I think the Soviets will hold off," said Professor Curry. "But they're going to do a lot of saber rattling."
Professor Curry sees the recent leadership changes in Poland as an indication that the Polish government is going to continue with a "tightrope policy" of trying on the one hand to offer a degree of compromise to the workers, while on the other trying to maintain control and reassure the Russians.
A problem arises, she says, because the workers want to develop political linstitutions to protect their economic gains. In the past, she continues, the workers made gains but then saw them disappear because of a lack of institutional change. The government, however, must make certain that there is no challenge to continued communist party rule, Polish foreign policy and controls over the press.
Professor Curry thinks that much of the pressure on the Soviets in favor of an invasion is probably coming from Poland's neighbors, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The leaders of those countries apparently fear that should the Polish workers hold on to their gains, liberalizing influences will spread beyond Poland's borders to the other East European nations.
An invasion would probably involve the use of Czech and East German troops, just as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia involved the use of other East European armies -- aside from that of Romania.
Defense analysts do not like to speculate about the number of troops which it would take to suppress Poland, because the nature of the resistance remains unpredictable. But one estimate has it that at least 30 divisions of troops would be required. With all the support units involved, this would come to more than half a million men. Some other estimates of what it would take run even higher.