The Soviets are nervously watching Communist Party Leader Edward Gierek's dangerous balancing act in Poland fearing they could be forced into an intervention they deeply want to avoid if Gierek falls and disorder follows.
Soviet Russia has through the years demonstrated its willingness to use military force when its vital interests seem to be threatened. At almost regular 12-year intervals, the Kremlin crushed the 1956 Hungarian rebellion, the 1968 Prague Spring and the suddenly unstable allied regime in Afghistan last December.
But the three cases were unlike the current political crisis in Poland. In each, Moscow was in conflict with the local communist leader, who wound up dead or out of power.
In Poland, on the other hand, the Kremlin's course of action is aligned with Gierek, whom it has given considerable leeway in reaching an accommdation with the strikers.
Apart from insisting that Poland must remain a socialist country, Moscow has assumed a restrained and ambiguous stance toward the political and economic concessions Gierek has been forced to offer to the strikers.
But that tone of ambiguity obscures the Russian dilemma involved in its conflicting objectives -- preserving unity and cohesion of the bloc under Soviet leadership at all cost while maintaining good relations with the individual satelliet countries and Western Europe.
In Hungry, the choice was clear. The revolt was nationalist in character, with Imre Nagy wanting to quit the Warsaw Pact. His reward was execution. w
In Czechoslovakia, reform-minded intellectuals led the movement and workers stayed on the sidelines. The Russians had little trouble in pushing Alexander Dubeck aside and getting more pliable party leaders to sanction a Soviet invasion that had already happened.
Afghanistan was also an exercise in looking for a more pliable local agent, and Hafizullah Amin was shot to death as Soviet troops poured into that Moslem nation.
In contrast to the three small countries, Poland is Moscow's most populous ally and once was a major European power. What makes Poland also different is that Gierek and his colleagues have been loyal allies of the Soviet Union and that in the current triangular relationship -- striking workers, the government and the Soviet Union -- Warsaw and Moscow start by being on the same side.
But the Polish workers' demand for independent trade unions in something the Russians are not prepared to accept. That Gierek has offered to hold free and secret trade union elections is seen by diplomatic analysts here as a tactical move to get the strikers back to their jobs.
Polish-Russian relations have traditionally been burdened by animosities and conflicts. The Poles at one time ruled Hungary and Bohemia, penetrated deep into the Ukraine and even briefly occupied the Kremlin in Moscow at the beginning of the 17th century. The Russian emplore, in collusion with Prussia, partitioned Poland three times until it disappeared completely from the map in 1795.
When Poland reemerged as a geographic unit as the end of World War I, it was immediately involved in a war with the Soviet Union over disputed territories in 1920. More recently, the Soviet Union and Germany partitioned the country in 1939, and when the Red Army liberated Poland at the end of World War II, it made sure that it would have a friendly communist government in Warsaw.
Western sources say that the Kremlin is fully aware that the weight of Polish grievances and the tradition of rebellon against czarist rule would make an intervention in Poland a serious venture -- far more serious than any of the three postwar Soviet invasions.
The Kremlin's handling of the current crisis may profoundly affect all Soviet allies. Their centrally planned economic systems were established by Stalin at a time when most of these countries were war-ravaged and poor. Most of them have since developed modern industrial capacities.
What the current Polish economic difficulties show is that a modern industrial society, with developed working and middle classes, cannot be efficiently managed under the system of highly centralized controls.
According to experts, this is going to become increasingly more apparent to smaller countries because of rising energy costs, although less apparent to the Soviet government because of its vast natural resources.
But even Soviet economists have ben arguing for economic reforms, and there was at least one half-hearted attempt here in the 1960s to introduce a degree of economic incentives and stimulate initiative rather than rely exclusively on the central planners and proscribed norms. The attempt had failed, however, due to political resistance to changes.
There is, of course, no immediate cure for the Polish economy, and the Russians know they will have to make up for the losses eventually, after life in Poland returns to normal.
But the course of economic and other changes that eventually emerges in Poland is likely to set a pattern for the rest of Eastern Europe.
From Moscow's viewpoint, the main task it to get the workers back to their jobs. Gierek still enjoys confidence here, diplomats say, although his position has weakened over the past week because of his failure to restore industrial order. Although a friend, he may yet be replaced, if that is the price for a settlement of the crisis.