The Poles and Alexander Pushkin

The US reaction to Polish martial law ignores Talleyrand's wise advice - never follow your first instinct, for it is likely to be noble and accordingly wrong.

No one can remain indifferent to yet another tragedy of the suffering, courageous, and independent-minded Polish people. However, a natural frustration with General Jaruzelski's crackdown should not paralyze our analytical abilities. Emotions - as commendable as they may be - do not release policymakers from responsibility for the consequences of their actions and statements. The Americans had enough exposure to Jimmy Carter to decide that an outcome rather than an intent is the criterion by which true statesmanship should be judged.

The Reagan administration has a point in arguing that the Kremlin is behind the Jaruzelski assault on Solidarity. Even if the specific details of the operation, including its timing, were determined in Warsaw rather than in Moscow - and this is also debatable - it was the Soviet regime that established the overall context in which the Polish leadership had to make its choices.

The equation created by Russia was simple - failure to act against Solidarity could bring about Soviet intervention, which would probably be costly not only for Lech Walesa and other labor and dissident activists, but also for the Polish ruling class. Just think about the fate of Alexander Dubcek and especially Imre Nagy. On the other hand, by deciding to proceed with the repression, Jaruzelski and his colleagues could not lose. If worse had come to worst and the ''red colonels'' encountered stiff resistance, they could always have relied upon the helping hand of their Soviet big brother.

And yet before passing sweeping judgments on the Soviet connivance, four frequently overlooked factors should be taken into account.

First, it is difficult for outsiders to appreciate fully the strength and depth of the traditional Russian fears of what Polish freedom could mean. A great Russian poet - known for his liberal sympathies - responding to Western outrage over Poland, wrote a highly emotional poem, ''to the slanderers of Russia,'' in which he bitterly denounced his country's critics. A famous rebel with a considerable following in the West called this poem a model for patriotism and said that ''this is what the feelings of any Russian should be.'' A young officer, persecuted and exiled for his opposition to authoritarian rule, voiced his disappointment over having been deprived of an opportunity ''to exchange gunshots'' with the Poles.

The name of the poet was Alexander Pushkin; the name of the rebel was Mikhail Bakunin; and the name of the young officer was Alexander Bestuzhev - one of the heroes of the Decembrist revolt. All of them were commenting on the brutal suppression of Poland in 1830 by the armies of Nicholas I. Needless to say, bias does not become less deplorable with age. However, it is impossible to understand current Soviet attitudes toward Poland without taking into consideration the long and painful history of competition between these two rivals, who were constantly at each other's throats (with Poland initially having an upper hand and later Russia becoming dominant). Most Russians interpret this history as a mandate for settling disputes with their Slavic cousins without any outside interference.

Second, leaving the painful heritage of Russian-Polish animosities aside, the Soviet Union has a vital interest in preserving some degree of control over Warsaw. This interest stems from the importance of Poland itself, with its 36 million people and relatively well-equipped army; from the deep-seated Soviet fear that a Polish virus may be contagious and spread throughout Eastern Europe where no state is totally immune to it; and from Poland being a crucial communications link with East Germany where the bulk of the Soviet forces in Europe are stationed.

According to the apparent reasoning of the Politburo, if Poland goes - or just becomes totally unreliable - Soviet troops could not be maintained in East Germany without running the real risk of their being cut off in a period of war. A withdrawal of Russian occupational armies bears the danger of bringing about a profound change in European geopolitics, including the likelihood of the emergence of a unified Germany allied with the West. Few Russians - whether supporters or opponents of the Brezhnev regime - are indifferent to this possibility, which immediately revives frightening memories.

Third, the Soviet leadership reluctantly tolerated Polish liberalization for many months. Most Western observers actually expected direct Soviet intervention to take place much earlier. The cynics charge that Moscow intended to destroy Solidarity all along. But, while the careful preparation and the skillful execution of the crackdown are evidence of advanced planning, the existence of contingency plans alone does not prove that a political decision to implement them was always inevitable.

There are many indications that, at least until late fall, the Kremlin and its associates in Warsaw were trying to develop a modus vivendi with Solidarity which would have assured the communist party of a political monopoly, in addition to allowing the independent labor union and the church considerable leeway and even some discreet and indirect influence on the general affairs of the state. This arrangement would have fallen far short of pluralistic democracy Western-style, but it would have been an enormous step forward for a country solidly within the Soviet orbit.

The Kremlin, with its well-documented suspicion of anything resembling free-thinking and independent political action, obviously had to have been extremely frustrated with the way things were progressing in Poland. Still, as troubled and embarrassed as it was, the Soviet Union procrastinated for more than a year, during which time it was unable to persuade the Polish obligarchy to reassert power over its increasingly defiant subjects and was unwilling to intervene on its own. Moscow must have felt particularly impatient since, ironically, it was the Soviets themselves who had to pay the bill for Poland's mounting economic troubles.

Finally, it is a travesty to pretend that Solidarity and its allies did not push Jaruzelski and his Soviet friends into a corner. No, Solidarity should not be blamed for the crackdown. One cannot expect precise calculation and masterful fine tuning on the part of the oppressed workers in their struggle against the discredited and alien communist system. It is difficult, nonetheless, to stop a revolution at a midpoint. Confronted with growing popular discontent and constantly feeling the pressure of their Moscow superiors, the Polish authorities were bound to act in self-defense. That is exactly what the imposition of martial law was all about. The crackdown was tragic, but predictable under the circumstances. To punish the Soviet Union for the Polish outrage is to punish it for what it is - a conservative, insensitive, military empire; built and held together by force.

The US could not for either domestic or international considerations acquiesce to the Jaruzelski coup. Still, because there was no direct Soviet encroachment on American or NATO interests, Washington should have thought not so much in terms of punishing the Kremlin, but rather about seeking ways to limit the damage to the cause of Solidarity and, when possible, to make a virtue out of necessity. Taking into account how much is at stake for the other side, the casual use of marginal sanctions not supported by the allies will not ease the repression in Poland. It only contributes to the perception that America is anxious and frustrated, while lacking the wisdom and the means to affect the Polish situation.

If the administration is earnest it should use this occasion to introduce the draft and spend considerably more on conventional forces. If, conversely, we, as a nation, lack the courage and/or the consensus to do things that really count, then we should resort to symbolic gestures. A postponement of the Haig-Gromyko meeting immediately comes to mind. Nothing constructive can result from it given the current international situation. And, the time is overdue to stop the meetings on the Helsinki accord which falsely project an image of peace and tranquillity in a time of trouble.

In any case, a routine disruption of trade can only hurt American expert competitiveness and reduce the already insignificant economic leverage that the US maintains over the Soviet Union.

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