Poland is the most populous of Moscow's East European ''allies'' or ''satellites'' with 36 million people. It is also by far the most important strategically because it lies between the cities, factories, and farms of the Soviet Union itself and Moscow's military frontier in East Germany.
Moscow maintains an army of occupation of 20 divisions in East Germany. There are also five in Czechoslovakia and four in Hungary. This combined force of 29 divisions is largely supplied over the road and rail network of Poland. There are two Soviet divisions in Poland itself guarding the supply lines.
Poland lies deep inside Moscow's Western military frontier.
If Moscow lost effective military control over Poland it would have to abandon its forward military position in East Germany and fall back on the line of the Pripet marshes where its armies lost out to the Germans in both World Wars I and II.
It is axiomatic from the above that Moscow is not in this era and under existing world patterns going to allow Poland to escape from its effective military control.
True and full independence for Poland can come under existing circumstances only through a breakup of the whole Soviet empire or in the course of a major war which Moscow lost. If liberation came through war, how many Poles would survive to enjoy independence?
For the above reason, it is a waste of breath for people in Washington to ''warn'' Moscow against doing anything unpleasant to Poland or to the Polish people. There is nothing Washington can do short of declaring World War III which could influence what Moscow does about Poland. It will do what it conceives to be in its national interest regardless of heroic, and empty, postures in Washington.
Moscow has so far refrained from using its own military forces against the Poles because, so far, it has assumed that there are less expensive ways of maintaining effective military control. There can be no serious doubt that they will use their own armed forces if the attempt to manage the ''Polish problem'' by use of the Polish army itself should happen to fail.
The Polish people stand to be the main gainers from this present attempt. The Polish army is made up of Polish people. Poles are remarkaby homogeneous. Unlike other peoples in Eastern Europe in this century they have not spilled each other's blood. Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians spilled each other's blood during the Stalin-era purges. Poles did not. The Polish people will be treated as kindly as possible by the Polish army. They have reason to hope that the present experiment will succeed. They are better off under the Polish army than they would be under the Soviet army.
The experiment was inevitable. Matters had reached the point where the more radical members of Solidarity were reaching for a degree of change and reform in Poland which would in fact have undermined Moscow's effective control. The time had come when either the Polish army acted, or the Soviets would have moved in.
The serious question is whether the Polish army operating under command of Polish Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski can get Poland back to work under conditions tolerable to the Polish people. The chances are that the experiment will work for the simple reasons that Poles can be realistic as well as romantic. They know that for them this experiment is the lesser evil.
Feelings in Western capitals are mixed. Some government officials in Washington would have preferred the Soviet army and heavy fighting between Soviets and Poles. This, it was argued in some Washington quarters, would have tied down more Soviet divisions in occupation duties in Poland thus detracting from the Soviet units available against NATO.
It was also argued in these more militant quarters in Washington that violence in Poland would have tended to overcome neutralism in Western Europe and caused the West European countries to revive their interest in NATO and to increase their military budgets.
The immediate question for Washington is whether to give economic support to the Polish military experiment.
The experiment would have a better chance of success if it could bring food to the almost empty shelves of Polish markets and thus give the Polish people the compensation of new food supplies in return for some of their lost freedom.
Moscow is presumably watching the affair with mixed feelings. It must think that the political loss from use of Soviet troops would outweigh the gain in restored direct control. But any Polish solution to the Polish problem means a degree of Polish independence even though less independence than the radicals in the Solidarity movement were preaching.