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Message to the Kremlin

Will they or won't they? It is not certain whether the Russians, by reportedly intensifying activity among Warsaw Pact troops, are preparing for a possible military intervention in Poland or simply increasing psychological pressure on the Poles not to go too far. Perhaps a bit of both. In any case, the West has properly warned the Kremlin of the grave consequences of such an intervention. The leaders of the Common Market have spoken out. So has the White House, and so has the Reagan shop. With the message made clear, the need now will be to refrain from saying or doing anything that might increase the tension.

The fact is, the Russians know only too well the price they would pay for a repetition of their actions in Czechoslovakia in 1968. For one, they could not expect to deal with a supine Polish population. Even if Poles did not resort to armed resistance -- and that could not be ruled out -- their disaffection with past communist regimes is such that resistance could take other forms, such as a nationwide refusal to work. This could be catastrophic for the faltering Soviet and Polish economies. who would feed 35 million Poles?

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Then there is detente. Soviet armed intervention in Poland would threaten the structure of East-West relations so carefully built up by the Brezhnev leadership. The economic cooperation the Russians count on would be endangered. Herein lies the dilemma. The Soviet Union and its partners are so plugged into trade with the West that they would have a tough time if thrown on their own.

In theory, this would be possible given the vast resources of the USSR. But politically it could prove disastrous. Even with Western help the Soviet leaders are barely able to keep their people's standard of living edging upward. Without it, they would have to undo their economic plans, introduce austerity, and tell disgruntled Soviet citizens they must again postpone their aspirations for a better life. The consequences in terms of social unrest can only be imagined.

Yet Poland, ironically, could prove a boon for the Russians as well. The sobering fact for the Kremlin ought to be that the socialist econnomic system is not working. It is merely plunging Poland -- and indeed the whole bloc -- deeply into debt. Without radical changes, neither Poland nor the bloc can hope to turn things around. If Poland manages such reforms -- staying, of course, within the Warsaw Pact and without toppling the communist party -- this could point the way to liberalization elsewhere, even the USSR.

The political risks for Moscow are obvious. The risks for the new Polish leadership are also obvious. Never before has there been an independent trade union movement able to challenge party authority. Yet it looks as if, one by one, political obstacles are being surmounted. The latest news out of Warsaw -- a purge of hardliners from the ruling Politburo -- indicates that leader Stanislaw Kania has strengthened his hand and that the Politburo is moving in a reformist, moderate direction. The political struggle is far from over. But, if Mr. Kania can keep this momentum going and, above all, if the radicals within the free trade unions can be kept under control, the efforts for true reform and democratization could bear fruit.

Surely the men in the Kremlin realize they cannot turn back the clock on Eastern Europe no matter what. They may not like what is happening in Poland. They may fear its impact. But their own long-term interests lie in letting the Poles work things out, for if they squelch them now they will only invite further upheavals in the future. It is hard to believe they will not continue to see the wisdom of a restrained, cautious course.

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