With military maneuvers, stern warning letters, and a fusillade of press criticism, the Soviet leaders have been stepping up their pressure on the Poles in recent weeks.
Now Moscow has added an economic dimension. A Soviet planning mission has arrived here amid indications that the Kremlin is telling Polish leaders that the scale of future aid will depend on more resolute political action to overcome the crisis here.
The delegation is headed by Nikolai Baibakov, who is vice-premier of the Soviet Council of Ministers and chairman of its planning commission. The fact that the head of the commission himself has come, less than two weeks since a Polish planning team was in Moscow, underlines the serious purpose of the visit.
This latest move comes just as this country is bracing for the second stage of Solidarity's national congress, due to open this Saturday. And it follows publication here last weekend of a Kremlin letter sharply criticizing the Polish leaders' failure to curb the anti-sovietism on display during the first stage of Solidarity's congress Sept. 5-9.
In that letter Russians offered none of their previous assurances of confidence and continued economic support. Instead they demanded immediate government action and an end to the leniency allegedly being shown to the "enemies of socialism" aiming to take over power in Poland.
The Baibakov mission had come at Polish invitation, a communique said, for talks "on the main lines of economic cooperation between the two countries in 1982 and in the years to come."
That is a wide brief. It suggests that the Soviets -- made uneasy by the magnitude of Polish investment in the 1970s and the catastrophic Western debt burden it subsequently incurred -- will be exercising much greater caution in their long-term economic dealing with Poland.
It looks, too, as if the Poles are going to be placed on a sort of probation to see if they are capable -- quite apart from the political action demanded of them -- of doing something to remove the present disequilibrium in their trade with the Russians.
The Poles are making the best they can of the visit. "Better Baibakov than [ Soviet Defense Minister] Ustinov," a journalist remarked. The Poles have had plenty of Soviet military "reminders," to say nothing of Warsaw Pact exercises adjacent to their borders. The most recent was large-scale sea, air, and land maneuvers not very far up the Baltic coast from the Polish border.
Since the crisis erupted just over a year ago and the country slid thereafter ever nearer to economic disaster, the Russians alone among the Poles' East-bloc partners have maintained agreed trade deliveries to Poland -- despite the latter's increasing default in its on obligations.
East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and (on a lesser scale) Hungary all cut back because the Poles' reduced deliveries of vital items forced them to cover the shortfalls through purchases in hard currency markets. All, nonetheless, have been giving the Poles some help with emergency supplies of meat and other foodstuffs.
The Russians, however, have not only kept up their own agreed quota irrespective of Polish default, but also have supplied considerable additional supplies as well as financial and credit aid.
According to Polish figures, between last year and the present time this asistance has included about 240 million rubles worth ($314 million) of goods, plus 1 billion rubles ($1.31 billion) in credit and the equivalent of $1 billion divided equally between free exchange currency and economic aid. A moratorium until 1985 was also granted on the repayment by the Poles of credits granted by the Soviets during the previous five-year plan.
During the first six months of this year, Polish deliveries to the USSR fell by at least 20 percent compared with the same six months in 1980. There was an especially heavy downturn in coal (this country's strongest export weapon), sulfur, and copper.
The Polish party newspaper Trybuna Ludu commented some time ago that the Soviets had "taken no reprisals in trade with Poland but we must realize that such trade cannot be conducted long term." Since that comment, the Polish economy has steadily gone further downhill and, with it, its foreign trade with both East and West.
Some of Poland's neighbors have shown their displeasure more brutally than the Russians. This was exemplified by a Neues Deutschland comment Sept. 8 in which the East German party newspaper said that giving aid to Poland was like "pouring something into a bottomless barrel."
It could not be continued, the paper said, unless some results -- by which, of course, was also meant political results in the struggle with Solidarity -- became visible.
Poland's economic dependence on the Soviet Union cannot be overestimated. The latter provides 80 percent of its crude oil, 100 percent of its gas, over 71 percent of its iron ores (the rest from Sweden and Brazil), and about 70 percent of things like chromium, manganese, and cotton. Its only oil supplier of any significance outside Comecon -- Iraq (11 percent) -- is now an uncertainty.
The Poles' own planning mission came back from Moscow empty-handed, it seemed , except for some hopes that the Russians might help by making some use of industrial capacity in this country now left idle by the drastic cutbacks in investment; and also utilizing Soviet machinery and facilities bought earlier by the Poles but not yet installed for the same reason.
The additional aid given since August last year was without doubt reckoned by the Russians worthwhile if it kept Poland on its feet or, longer term, avoided some other kind of intervention. The latter type of intervention, political or military, still might become inevitable if there was a final economic collapse -- accompanied in all probability by civil strife posing a grave threat to the Soviet Union's western defense line.
These criteria would seem still to hold good. For the Russians there really is no option but to continue economic help to Poland.
Continuously there is news of some further worsening of the economy. Only a few days ago an official report said there had been "no major improvement at all." Coal output was down more than 20 percent, despite the sending of 9,000 soldiers into the pits, and oil refining had dropped by 17 percent.
Moreover, the farmers -- 80 percent of them private -- are simply not selling livestock to the state markets. September sales, in fact, are so far 20,000 tons down on last year and meat imports to date are only 8,000 tons.
It has been said the Russians could be thinking of putting trade on a strictly reciprocal basis of mutual fulfillment of obligations. In all likelihood this won't happen immediately, but the implicit warning is there.