In an atmosphere of pessimism about Poland, the 15 NATO foreign ministers are trying to warn Moscow against an invasion -- without themselves adding tp the momentum of Soviet-Polish confrontation.
All allied spokesman at the regular winter meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels Dec. 11 and 12 are therefore stressing that a Soviet invasion of Poland is not inevitable.
But privately one American diplomat expressed a common worry that the momentum of the Soviet-Polish clash is in fact, moving toward an invasion that Moscow would undertake only as a last resort.
In this view Moscow knows very well that the West's response to an invasion would be severe; whatever NATO communique emerges Dec. 12 will be telling the Russians nothing new. But this knowledge is small deterrent. At this point the Soviet leaders are primarily concerned about erosion of their control over their most populous client state and over their entire Eastern European empire. In the ultimate Kremlin decision this is bound to outweigh the loss of Western goodwill and credits.
Still, the NATO allies want to ensure that the depth of Western concern about Poland is unambiguous -- both to Moscow and to a third world that might otherwise accommodate the Soviet Union's greater willingness to use military force in the world.
Further, if a Soviet invasion of Poland does occur, the NATO allies want to have laid the groundwork now for a common and swift Western response. They all want to avert the Western improvisation and disarray that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a year ago.
This does not mean, spokesman emphasize, that the US has come with a proposed list of sanctions that it wants Europe to approve in advance contingency planning. But it does mean consideration of various military, economic, and diplomatic measures that could be applied flexibly.
These measures would not include NATO military intervention in Eastern Europe; ever since the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 the West has clearly accepted Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. But the response would include a Western military buildup beyond current plans, both US Defense Secretary Harold Brown and British Minister Francis Pym told reporters after the Dec. 9 and 10 NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels.
The Western response would include economic sanctions as well. It would definitely mean a common curtailing of credits for the Soviet Union, one allied diplomat indicated privately. And French Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet -- representing a country that balked at cutting credits and high-technology sales to the Soviet Union after the invasion of Afghanistan -- indirectly confirmed this in telling reporters Dec. 11 that economic interests would not block necessary reactions.
Political consequences by any Soviet invasion of Poland -- according to both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Foreign Minister Lord Carrington -- would be worse that those that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.