Marshal Viktor Kulikov's visit to Poland, as generalissimo of the Warsaw Pact , was bound to make the headlines at a time of domestic crisis in that most strategic sector of the alliance.
His trip, however, is not surprising. In Warsaw, officials described it as "routine." Both military and political observers see it as a natural and normal move, precisely what any commanding general would find necessary with an area under his command in the kind of critical situation that has prevailed in Poland since midsummer.
It is not seen here as a calculated "reminder" to the Poles that the Soviet leaders are still concerned and watchful of what is going on. No one who has been in Poland in recent months can doubt the Poles know that well enough already. (After all they were talking with Mr. Brezhnev little more than a month ago and undoubtedly have conferred over the hot line between Moscow and Warsaw since then.)
Nor did the marshal fly to Warsaw as some sort of political counterbalance to the current visit in Rome of Poland's independent union leader and ardent Roman Catholic, Lech Walesa -- even though both items made front-page news in Warsaw Wednesday morning.
Mr. Walesa is making a first visit abroad as chairman of Solidarity's national committee ostensibly to visit the Italian trade unions. But the most significant purpose of his trip is the audience with his Polish countryman in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II, today. (The Roman Catholic Church has given increasing support lately to the Polish Communist Party's efforts for national conciliations.)
Predictably, details of Marshal Kulikov's Polish program were not revealed in advance. His initial meeting with the Polish leaders -- party first secretary Stanislaw Kania, Politburo member and Prime Minister Jozef Pinkowski, and the country's defense chiefs -- shortly after his arrival Jan. 13, was described as "cordial and friendly."
But his main purpose would seem clearly to be both to review with the poles the kind of situation that conceivably might arise if the domestic crisis were ultimately to prove unmanageable, and the contingency plans to be set in motion should the need finally present itself.
This would not necessarily involve new Soviet troops but would draw primarily on Poland's own security forces and, if need be, elements of the two Soviet divisions stationed in Poland as part of the Warsaw Pact's northern defense group.
The visit was disclosed only after the Soviet delegation's arrival. But it was not an unannounced event like the out-of-the-blue descent on Warsaw of Nikita Khrushchev on Oct. 17, 1956. That was when the "Polish October" under Wladislaw Gomulka was reaching its finale: a meeting of the Central Committee, then in session, to confirm the new reform program. It was told the Soviet leader had just arrived -- uninvited -- at Warsaw airport.
There were chilly and angry exchanges between the two leaderships and, within 24 hours, the brow-beating but defeated Mr. Khrushchev was on his way home, having been denied access to the committee session.
But, in vastly different circumstances 25 years later (and 12 years after the Czechoslovak intervention), the Russians are obviously interested in the new Polish leadership finding its own way out of the crisis without outside military "aid."
According to the best-informed opinion in Warsaw, such aid will come about only as absolutely the "last resort." That is, if there were to be so complete a breakdown of civil order that the Polish leaders could not themselves contain it.
That stage is certainly still very far away.
Except for the more extreme dissidents and militants, most Poles, workers or otherwise, give one a distinct impression of being weary of the strike-and-crisis atmosphere and ready to give the government at least breathing space to act on its words.
And if, instead, military "help" from outside did ultimately prove inevitable , it would not be a shattering surprise. The Polish leaders themselves told -- or warned -- their people six weeks ago that "if socialism were really threatened," the Polish Communists would not hesitate to ask, within the terms of the pact, for assistance from the Soviet Union and allied states.
A meeting of the defense Minister's Defense Council announced on Dec. 3 that "tasks were specified" for Poland's armed forces if the strike crisis persisted. It can be assumed that one of Marshal Kulikov's prime reasons for visiting Poland just now is to look over the method and the resources of such arrangements.