This may well be the most painful weekend the leaders of the Soviet Union have experienced since World War II. They must choose now, this weekend, for otherwise it might be too late to choose, between bringing Poland back into the Soviet imperial system by force or risking the decisive breakup of that system.
It must be an appalling choice for them because the price, either way, is almost prohibitive.
To use force against Poland is to admit the political and economic bankruptcy of the Soviet system. Also it would frighten and alienate the peoples and leaders of other communist countries and parties.
The loss of prestige and influence would be seriously damaging. More than ever before, the Soviet Union would be the pariah of the nations, condemned and scorned by almost all others.
But to fail to use force could be fully as damaging: in Kremlin eyes even more so because, in its words, it could "change the balance of power in Europe and the world."
That is precisely what it would probably do, because Poland is the cornerstone of the arch of the Soviet position in Europe. The lines of communication to the Soviets' armies in East Germany and Czechoslovakia run through Poland. If Poland slips out of the Soviet imperial system, East Germany and Czechoslovakia would be able to do the same and someday surely would.
If Moscow loses Poland, it will, sooner or later, lose its whole military and political position in Eastern Europe, with the possible exception of Bulgaria. Bulgaria has traditionally been pro-Russia as well as today being communist.
The importance of this weekend lies in a deadline set by the Poles. They have scheduled a special Polish Communist Party congress to begin on Tuesday next (July 14).
That congress, if free to do what its leadership intends doing, will convert the Communist Party in Poland from an instrument of Soviet purpose into an instrument for the welfare of the Polish people. It is reforming itself. The congress will ratify that enormous change in the system in Poland -- provided Moscow keeps its hands off.
The Kremlin has seen this moment of decision coming. It has kept its options open. The issue was apparently first faced in Moscow early last December. Information obtained by Western diplomats at the time indicated that the Politburo split over a proposal to intervene with military force and that Leonid Brezhnev broke the tie in favor of nonintervention.
But, if true, the decision in December against intervention must have been tentative, not final, because the main crisis apparently occurred in April. Large formations of Soviet troops were deployed around Poland at that time and were obviously poised to move on short notice.
That particular phase of the Polish-Soviet story ended in late April without violence after Mikhail A. Suslov, chief theoretician of the Politburo and a hard-line conservative, made a surprise visit to Warsaw. Indications at that time were that he had delivered stern warnings to the Poles to avoid carrying their reform movement too far. The Kremlin may have relaxed on assurances from the Poles that they would practice restraint.
However, the Suslov visit was obviously less successful than Moscow may have thought at the time. As the reform movement continued in Poland and seemed to be gaining momentum, the leadership in Moscow drafted a letter to the Central Committee of the party in Poland that spelled out in careful detail Moscow's complaints, anxieties, and intentions. It was dated June 5.
The complaints were that the Polish party had retreated steadily before the advance of "counterrevolutionary forces" in Poland. The letter cited as particularly dangerous "the fact that the enemy has seized control of the mass information media." It added that "the fight for the party would not be won as long as press, radio, and television were working not for the party, but for its enemies."
Translated into plain English, the charges are accurate. The hard-line, pro-Soviet element in the party had lost control of the party. The party, in turn, had lost control over press, radio, and television. Earlier it had lost control over the Roman Catholic Church, the trade union movement, and the farmers.
Poland today is something no leader of the Soviet Union, and no Russian for that matter, can understand. It is a pluralistic state in which power is dispersed among many organizations -- the church, the trade unions, and the farmers being the most important. The Soviet Union is a unitary state in which all power is vested in the party, just as all power was vested in the czars in earlier times.
Add to that the fact that the main elements in Poland's pluralistic society have ties with the West rather than with the East. Poland's Catholic Church is in communication with Rome, not with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow. Poland's trade unions take their inspiration and models from the West. Poland's farmers are Western in cultural aspirations. Polish people have few relatives in the Soviet Union, literally millions of relatives in Western Europe and America. The head of the Polish trade union movement is Lech Walesa, whose father lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
If such change is ratified at the Polish party congress on Tuesday next, and left unchallenged by Moscow, the balance of power in Europe and the world would be changed. It would be changed because Moscow could no longer count on the loyalty of the Polish Army to the Warsaw Pact and hence could no longer sustain its present military position in Central Europe.
If such change is unchallenged, Moscow's military frontier will eventually fall back to the Soviet Union itself. Its divisions in East Germany and Czechoslovakia will no longer threaten Western Europe and no longer be able to keep Germany divided. Stalin's enormous gains from victory in 1945 will have been lost just as most of his gains from victory over Japan have long since been lost.
In Stalin's day Moscow held Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and a half share in Sinkiang and Tibet. All that went quickly after Stalin died. Khrushchev could still claim China as an ally and Egypt and Somalia as clients when he came to office. Under Krushchev, China was lost. Under Brezhnev, Egypt and Somalia were lost.
Will the satellites of Eastern Europe also be lost to the Soviet empire during the reign of Leonid Brezhnev?
That is the anguishing question th e leaders in the Kremlin are facing right now.