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The winds of change in Eastern Europe

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The Polish crisis of 1980, which might easily have erupted into the most serious East-West confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis, appears to be subsiding.

But two important caveats are in order. First, this relaxation relates not to the longer-term complex of Polish problems, which will continue to be acute for an indefinite period, but to the immediate threat of Soviet military occupation. Second, the threat is only suspended; some explosive incident, or some accumulation of factors unacceptable to the Kremlin, could revive it suddenly tomorrow.

The agonizing problem for the Soviet Politburo is that there are, from its point of view, so many strong arguments both for and against intervention in Poland.

On the other hand, the Soviet leaders are aware, particularly after ther recent NATO meeting, that a military occupation of Poland would end for a long time prospects of reviving useful relations with the United States, including imports of grain and negotiations to reduce the dangers and costs of the arms race. It might also interrupt even more valuable imports of machinery and technology from Western Europe and Japan, as well as emphatically closing current rifts inside NATO.

The Soviets may doubt that economic sanctions against them would be comprehensive or long-enduring, but the unhealthy state of their economy would probably make even a temporary interruption in critical imports hard to bear. Moreover, even worse, they know from recent experience that behavior on their part perceived as outrageous by the West inevitably drives the US closer to China. They would have to take account of the likelihood that a military occupation of Poland could lead to American military aid to China. No prospect could seem more ominous to the Soviets than that one.

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