The new Soviet attack on West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt is a danger signal for Washington and Warsaw -- as well as for Bonn. On may 27 Tass compared Schmidt's support of the West German Army and new NATO nuclear weapons with Hitler's aggression. On May 28 the Communist Party newspaper, Pravda accused Schmidt of whipping up the arms race and following American policy aimed at exacerbating tensions. During his US visit (May 20-23), Pravda charged, Schmidt seemed to have forgotten his own cause of common sense and straint in international relations.
These accusations might be just part of the Soviet propaganda appeal to antinuclear public opinion in Europe. They are hardly routine, however, when they are personally directed at Schmidt, whom the Soviets have cultivated and generally cast as the "good guy" againt "bad-guy" West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
The Tass and Pravda commentaries therefore raise more serious questions: Is the USSR abandoning its political attempts to divide the US and Europe? Is it retreating instead to a siege mentality that sees defense only in girding up for East-West military confrontation? Is one more of the restraints on a Soviet invasion of Poland evaporating?
The questions take on added urgency at a time when the Polish free trade union Solidarity's former iron discipline against anti-Soviet manifestations seems to be weakening. During last August's Gdansk strike that launched Solidarity, the sign proclaiming the number of ships that had been exported to the Soviets was -- conspicuously -- never defaced.
Now white paint has been splattered on a monument to Soviet soldiers in Poland near the Soviet border; some Solidarity representatives have complained publicly about the alleged beating up of a Pole by Soviet soldiers; and Solidarityis demanded -- and gotten -- the withdrawal of the Pravda correspondent in Warsaw.
So sensitive do Poles in positions of authority regard this reaching of the previous taboo on criticism of the Soviet Union that the Council of Ministers, the United Workers' (Communist) Party newspaper, Trybuna Ludu, and the news agency PAP have all warned against it in recent days. The Council of Ministers objected to "insults" of Soviet troops. Trybuna Ludu counseled May 27 that "only someone who is insane or wants to bring harm to Poland" would criticize the Polish-Soviet military alliance.
The new Polish breaching of the old Soviet taboo removes one of the presumed brakes on any Soviet decision to use force to try to restore a Polish system more amenable to Soviet direction. As long as there was no overt Polish challenge to the two-plus Soviet divisons in Poland, logistcial lines across Poland to East Germany were better secured by giving Warsaw a free rein than by occupying Poland and risking prolonged guerrilla sabotage of those logistical lines. This argument is now weakened, however.
In this context the significance of the new Soviet attack on Schmidt is that it would allow Moscow to revive the West German bogeyman as justification for any military brotherly assistance to the Poles. This, of course, was the rationale for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and it is even more applicable to a Poland whose Western territories formerly belonged to the German Reich.
Until detente and the Soviet-Polish treaty in the 1970s, the specter of West German "revanchsim" bound Warsaw to Moscow out of fear that West Germany might actually try to regain the Polish territory it still claimed. The dissipation of his fear in people's thinking and in Soviet-bloc propaganda was one of the more striking aspects of detente (along with the final German renunciation of claims to Polish territory).
During the past nine months of Polish liberalization, public Soviet treatment of West Germany has been something of a barometer of Soviet vacillation on Poland. When invasion seemed close, Soviet press attacks on West Germany increased. Obversely, when the Soviets backed off from invasion last spring. Brezhnev signaled his eagerness to visit Bonn later this year. Such a visit, it is understood all around, could not take place after any Soviet invasion of Poland.
What makes Soviet treatment of Bonn difficult to evaluate, however, is Schmidt's simultaneous barometer role in Soviet-American relations. Schmidt has always endorsed both military preparedness toward, and the dialogue with, the Soviet Union. But in the months since a hard-line Reagan became US President -- and nuclear pacifist sentiment against the NATO rearmament grew inside Schmidt's own party -- the Chancellor has felt obliged to court the US and counter the West German doubters by critizing Soviet "imperialism" much more publicly than ever before.
Tass and Pravda are probably reacting to this Moscow-Washington-Bonn equation rather than deliberately preparing a change in the Moscow-Warsaw-Bonn equation. The danger for the Poles, however, is that Soviet disillusionment with the present state of Soviet-US-West German relations could also fuel Soviet disillusionment with the present suspended state of Soviet-Polish-West German relations.