The Soviet Union may finally be moving from tough words to action on the Polish crisis, and one option reportedly in Kremlin notebooks is to press for imposition of martial law.
Only a fool or a fiction writer would strike the word "may." There remain imponderables at this writing and, in theory at least, some good reasons for the Kremlin to keep talking. But it has been an ominous few days for Moscow's army of foreign Poland-watchers:
* Early April 5, President Leonid Brezhnev left on a previously unannounced trip to the Czechoslovak capital, Prague. Officially, he was said to be on his way to attend the imminent Czechoslovak Communist Party congress there, and he surely will.
But Mr. Brezhnev has skipped East-bloc party congresses in recent years. East European sources here said it was safe to assume other Warsaw Pact leaders would also show up in Prague and that they would talk about Poland -- although by late April 5 there was no sign from the Czechoslovak capital that such a summit was shaping up.
Initial indications here were that in any case Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu would not attend. He opted out of East-bloc summits preceding the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Mr. Ceaucescu did attend a Moscow summit last Dec. 5 on the Polish crisis, but foreign diplomats here assume that was because he had been given advance assurances that outside intervention in Poland would not be the order of the day.
* Generally reliable sources from two East European countries say privately they have been informed by Soviet officials that one alternative under consideration by the Kremlin is to press Poland's battered Communist leadership to impose martial law or declare some form of national emergency.
* The official Soviet press in recent days has made it clear the Kremlin is unimpressed by the latest compromise between Polish authorities and "antisocialist forces," and that Moscow deems it is time for the Polish Communists to stand tough.
The Soviet newspaper Pravda, in this regard, stressed April 5 the importance of "brotherly interaction" among East-bloc states. The report quoted the latest plenum of the Polish Communist Party's Central Committee as stressing the need to stem the "dangerous tendencies" of the Solidarity union movement.
Pravda attacked what it termed Western pressure on the Polish authorities not to take "measures to ensure law and order and to curb the activities of antisocialist forces."
* The Polish party meeting did decide to go ahead with election by secret ballot, from unrestricted candidate lists, of representatives to determine the makeup of an extraordinary party congress. The congress is to be held by July 20.
Most diplomats here feel that should there be signs that harder-line Communists are being shoved out in favor of relative sympathizers with Solidarity, the Soviet Union would move to counter the process.
Then, there are the imponderables, the theoretical disincentives for the Kremlin to act.
The idea of martial law, for instance, may look fine on paper -- or at least more appetizing than outright Soviet or Warsaw Pact military intervention, a path the Kremlin presumably is not eager to take. But, Western and some East European analysts here ask, would Poland's Communist leadership prove any more effective as martial law commanders than as mere Politburo members?
Would the current Polish leadership go along with the idea? Would Poland's "antisocialists" fade into the woodwork? Would the presumed "martial" half of martial law -- the Polish military -- take well to cracking down on its compatriots?
Recent Soviet news reports have pointed to the "loyalty" of Polish troops. But Western diplomats -- and one Soviet official -- expressed doubts on the subject in conversations with this reporter.
A Polish source here, asked just how loyal Polish troops might prove, replied: "They are loyal," adding, "loyal, first, to Poland."
One other potential disincentive for the Soviets is the likely damage that escalated Kremlin involvement in the Polish crisis would do to East-West relations.
Detente in general, and important economic ties with such Western states as West Germany and France in particular, have been policy pillars of the Brezhnev era. Both seem sure to be jolted by any perceived Soviet interference in Poland.
Foreign analysts here suspect that intermediate steps, such as a Soviet-inspired imposition of martial law, might not do irrevocable damage to detente. Despite Western warnings against even an "internal" crackdown in Poland, countermoves might well be shunned for fear of removing potential constraints on more direct Soviet action.
"But the problem for the Soviets," one Western diplomat commented, "is whether so-called intermediate steps can remain intermediate for long."
Meanwhile, the Soviet leadership has sent visiting West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher home with what one Western diplomat here termed "a sugar cube" --confirmation that Soviet President Brezhnev's recent call for a freeze on the (Moscow-heavy) balance of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe was not a precondition for new talks on controlling them.
Members of the Genscher party, which left here April 4, are also understood to have told fellow diplomats that there now appeared to be signs of room for compromise with the Soviets at the snagged East-West Helsinki-review talks under way in Madrid.