The 30 to 40 Soviet divisions now surrounding Poland could invade that country in a matter of hours. But no outsider knows if the political decisionto invade, under what conditions, has in fact been made in the Kremlin.
NATO partners on both sides of the Atlantic are agreed on this analysis -- and worried by it, according to United States and Western European diplomats in Bonn and Brussels.
This time around there is no visible transatlantic difference (as with afghanistan) in the seriousness with which a Soviet invasion of Poland would be viewed. Nor are the West's public alarms simply a hedge against later I-told-you-sos (as with afghanistan). Still less is the strong European Community warning to the Soviet Union Dec. 2 (or the West German foreign minster's calling in of the Soviet ambassador Dec. 8) some preemptive attempt to persuade US President-elect Ronald Reagan the Europe can be as tough as anyone.
On the contrary, the level of real European concern is "extremely high, extremely nervous," commented one American diplomat.
In the Western European analysis the reasons for concern are:
By the last days of November, something in Poland had pressed Moscow's grudging tolerance of its client's liberalization past the snapping point. No Westerner knows what that something was. It might have been the independent trade union Solidarity's demand that Polish police and secret police practices be investigated. (A few analysts argue that the start of a similar probe in Czechoslovakia, reviewing the Soviet-directed purges of the 1950s, triggered Soviet military intervention there in 1968.)
Or the last straw might have been Solidarity's threat of a railroad strike (to force release of a solidarity printer who had been arrested after reproducing secret government guidelines on how to deal with solidarity) Solidarity was careful to threaten only local trains, but the Russians could still have feared that their transport lifeline between the homaland and the 19 Soviet divisions in East Germany would be cut.
Alternatively, Soviet alarm might have been roused by the rapid disintegration of the Polish United Workers (Communist) Party. An estimated 700 ,000 Communists -- almost one-quarter of the party's total membership -- have joined Solidarity already. Some may have joined in an infiltration effort -- but when the shop-floor mood is such that Solidarit membership has become the main test of a Pole's patriotism, many party dogmatists have not dared to express their view within the free trade union.
The process has gone so far that the official Polish trade union, which has been little more than a docile conveyer of Communist orders, has had to announce the disbanding of its district committees and central committee by the end of this month.
Even more ominous (from the Soviet point of view) has been the spontaneous birth of new local organizations within the Polish Communist Party itself. "This is the amazing thing," remarked one European analyst. "Party members are not leaving the party but are organizing new party units." Even in Warsaw the embryo of a new party organization has formed.
The new party groups -- and some of the old cells as well -- are calling for free election of party officials and are rejecting the sacred Soviet tanet of "democratic centralism," i.e., rigid discipline from the top down. Already hundreds of the professional Polish party apparatchiks have been dismissed who in the past enforced "democratic centralism." Already the process of party "renewal," as the Poles call it, seems to have gone well beyond party changes within the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968. The well-publicized dismissal of four hard-liners from the Politburo two weeks ago was only the tip of the iceberg.
By the end of November all this seems to have persuaded the Russians that they could no longer hope that Solidarity and party reform elements would create such chaos as to discredit themselves and pave the way for a reassertion of order by party dogmatists loyal to Moscow. Moscow apparently warned Warsaw then that certain Polish practices would have to end.
To Western observers one of the first hints of this was the abrupt meekness of Solidarity from Nov. 28 on. Until then Solidarity had been coming up with new demands daily. At that point, however, Solidariy itself aborted the threatened steel strike in Warsaw (called to press for investigation of the police); it has stressed order, calm, and the absence of strikes ever since.
On Nov. 29 the Soviet news agency Tass carried Czech press comparisons of the Polish situation today with Czechoslovakia in 1968. On Dec. 1 and 2 the Polish Communist Party Central Committee met in what the Poles described only a week later as an acrimonious session and dismissed the four hardliners from the Politburo.
On Dec. 2 the Soviet Union announced closure of the Polish-East German border to Westerners; the US publicized intelligence information showing high readiness in Soviet divisions surrounding Poland; and the US and the European Community warned Moscow that any Soviet invasion of Poland would mean the end of detente for a long time to come. On Dec. 3 the Polish Central Committee issued its unprecedented statement beginning, "Countrymen, the fate of the nation and the country hangs in the balance."
On Dec. 4 there was a Warsaw Pact summit in Moscow -- with a puzzling presence of top East German and Polish, but apparently not Czechoslovak, security police officials. The summit expressed its two-edged confidence in the Polish leadership and pledge of "fraternal solidarity and support" for "the Polish people."
On Dec. 8 Tass for the first time initiated its own accusation of "counterrevolutionary" activity within Solidarity that had allegedly led to the dismissal of management and disarming of industrial guards in a ball bearing factory south of Warsaw. On Dec. 9, however, the Tass report -- which echoed similar Soviet charges against Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was vigoroulsly denied by Polish officials and solidarity -- was dropped from the Soviet press.
To both Americans and Western Europeans the sequence still seems ominous.