Despite their much-larger-than-expected size, the Soviet Union's land and sea maneuvers near Poland's borders still represent more a show of strength than any real threat to the turbulent East European nation.
That is the opinion of Western observers here as the war games proceed in the Baltic, in the Soviet republics neighboring Poland, and (according to Polish television) within Poland itself.
Code-named "Zapad-81" (West-81), the exercises coincided with the opening in Poland of the first congress of the independent trade union Solidarity. Although the exercises did not seem to have been scheduled around the congress, the Western analysts here say they are surely seen by the Kremlin as useful in intimidating the Poles and reminding them of the power on their eastern border.
But while Moscow may have been glad of an opportunity to warn its Polish comrades against excesses, the Kremlin has made it clear that the government in Warsaw still has its support. It did this Sept. 8 with an announcement that one of the East-bloc observers at the exercises' command headquarters is polish prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, who is also Poland's defense minister.
The Moscow afternoon television news program which carried the announcement was the first indication that a number of significant East-bloc officials were attending the exercises as invited guests. the television said that nine East-bloc defense minister were at the command center; General Jaruzelski was mentioned by name.
His presence seemed doubly significant when coupled with the first Soviet press coverage of the Solidarity conress, which was sharply critical. Tass said the congress under way in the Polish city of Gdansk was trying to seize political power in Poland and did not represent the nation's workers.
"The composition of the delegates determines the character of the main reports and the general atmosphere there of slandering the socialist foundations of the country and attacks against the Polish United Workers Party [Communist Party], the government, and elected bodies of power," it said.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union seems to have handled its public relations for the maneuvers with a notable lack of forthrightness and skill.
At first the Soviets said the military maneuvers were "very limited." Then, in a surprise declaration apparently timed for a quiet weekend night, they revealed that they are among the largest since the beginning of detente.
The statement by the official news agency Tass came as a nasty surprise to Western nations. Led by the United States, they said the failure to make notification of the size of the maneuvers violated the spirit and the letter of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.
Tass said 100,000 troops were involved in the exercises, which have been taking place in the Baltic states and the Soviet republic of Byelorussia. Under the "confidence-building measures" of the Helsinki agreement, signatory nations are required to report exercises of more than 25,000 men 21 days in advance.
The Soviet news media have been generous in coverage of the maneuvers, showing film of fighter planes, helicopters in action, tanks rolling over green fields, and interviews with soldiers.
An Air Force pilot interviewed on the evening news reported morale as high.
"If a pilot does not believe in his own abilities, then he can lose even a simple fight," the captain said.