To invade or not to invade -- that is the painful and perilous question which the Kremlin must answer. Probably the Soviet leadership has not decided what to do and shudders at the risks whichever way it decides.
One view is that the last thing Moscow wants is again to send it troops and tanks into Poland.
The other view is that the last thing Moscow wants is to lose Poland as the linchpin of its East European empire.
It is a dilemma to which, from the Russian viewpoint, there is no good answer. It is doubtful if Mr. Brezhnev has it on the tip of his tongue. While there is no value in speculating what may happen, it strikes me as useful to look at the incentives which could impel the Kremlin to invade and the restraints which could deter it.
In the past, whenever popular resistance to Soviet-based communist dictatorship became too strong, Moscow used its military might to suppress it -- in Poland earlier, in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary, and in East Germany. It worked before. Why not again?
The Polish labor movement has exacted more concessions from its communist regime than any other East European country. It has achieved an independent status and has acquired access to the government-controlled media. Its ranks have swelled to 10 million members, and it is moving Poland toward a pluralistic society that Moscow considers deeply inimical to communist ruling principles. These require that the communist party be the sole decisionmaking instrument of government.
Unless this trend is halted by Warsaw or by Moscow, there is no telling to what lengths of freedom it could lead. Moscow is not sure there is reason to believe that the Polish communists have the will or the unity to repair their deteriorating dictatorship.
The experts believe that the conditions that led to the events in Poland prevail in almost all the East European communist countries. Have the Soviets any reason to believe that the other Moscow-imposed regimes in Eastern Europe will not be tempted again to try to win their independence from Moscow if Poland succeeds in showing the way? Very little.
Can any empire remain secure unless it maintains unquestioned discipline from the top? The men in the Kremlin may well conclude that the future of their empire is in jeopardy.
Russia cannot be sure that all the Polish Army will be on its side. If the invaders turn their fire on the Polish people to quell resistance, the Polish troops will likely defend their compatriots. This could mean a bloody struggle.
There is deep historic hostility among the Poles toward Russia because of past treatment.
Soviet tanks cannot produce bread and food, and it was the sagging, mismanaged economy which brought the Polish independent labor movement to life.
The Soviet military would have to police Poland for a long time. It could hardly be a brief invasion. It would have to take over running the government and the economy -- as it has in Afghanistan. This would impose a heavy financial burden on the Soviet Union.
With 85,000 troops and the most modern weaponry, the Russians have thus far been unable to crush the resistance in Afghanistan. The Soviets are now talking about a five-year Afghan war, and to the Russians the trial in Afghanistan is looking more like the American experience in Vietnam.
The political price of a Soviet invasion of Poland would be high for the Kremlin in nearly every part of the world. It would further alienate the nations of the third world which voted overwhelmingly at the UN to condemn the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and would massively reduce Soviet influence in much of the world.
Invasion of Poland would snuff out all prospect of fanning detente to new life in WEstern Europe and would cause NATO to repair its defensive strength. It would end all hope of a new SALT treaty and confirm the worst fears of the Reagan administration. It would freeze relations between the Soviet Union and the US, reducing trade which Moscow greatly needs and would bring the US and China into a close association to Russia's distaste.
Obviously Moscow faces an ominous dilemma over what to do about Poland, and it is clear that there is no good answer. Either way, it's bound to be bad for the Soviet Union.