The Russians are prepared to pounce, but want to cut the costs of naked invasion. So creeping intervention is the name of the Soviet game in Poland.
Cracks are already beginning to show in the surface of Polish resistance. And with the president in the hospital, and the secretary of state abroad, the focus in the United States and in allied countries lacks steadiness.
The tightening of the Soviet screw is particularly evident in the security field. Military maneuvers have brought increases in the pressence of Soviet and East German troops in and around Poland. The Russians have developed independent transport facilities in Poland. They have organized a communications network wholly separate from the Polish system. They are now able to move without the Poles even knowing it.
Diplomatic and propaganda pressures have mounted apace. The visit of President Leonid Brezhnev to the Czech Party Congress in Prague comes under that heading. So does the statement by the Czech leader, Gustav Husak, that the Warsaw Pact countries are "determined to maintain the status of Poland as a socialist country." And the tone of menace of the Soviet press has heightened steadily.
Political divisions inside Poland show up clearly against that background. A week ago the Polish leaders could not agree on a move pushed by the Soviet Union to impose martial law. The meeting of the Parliament set for Monday had to be canceled as a result. In announcing the cancelation, Polish authorities gave as an excuse the "indisposition" of the prime minister, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. Warsaw then announced that its delegation to the Prague Party Congress would be led by former minister Stefan Olszowski, not Party Secretary Stanislaw Kania.
Olszowski has been known, ever since the independent trade union, Solidarity, struck against the government last August, as a partisan of tough, repressive tactics. The prime minister and party secretary, by contrast, have always opposed the use of force against Solidarity. So what seems to be happening inside Poland is a steady growth in the challenge posed by hard-liners around Olszowski to the more moderate leadership of Jaruzelski and Kania.
The preferred Russian scenario would probably begin with a victory for the hard-liners in Warsaw. Next would come the application of force by the Polish government against the independent union and its partisans. Then, if necessary, an appeal for help by the Polish regime to the "socialist fraternity." Thus, instead of invading, the Russians would merely be slouching toward Warsaw in response to the plea of a friendly government.
The role of the West in all this, while not central, is more than that of helpless bystander. The United States and its allies will determine in large part the price Russia has to pay for interference in Polish affairs. So the clear interest of the Atlantic allies is to keep the spotlight of attention steadily focused on Poland and Russia.
Two egregious examples of blurred focus, however, have cropped up in the past few days. First, there was the remark by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, in London, that a Soviet invasion of Poland might trigger American military aid to China. That comment opens a whole other, extremely complicated subject. It gives the Russians at least the color of a pretext for not showing restraint. Indeed, if the idea is to make the Soviets invade, China is a good subject to raise.
Second, there was the reluctance of the German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrech Genscher, to press the Polish question during a visit to Moscow last week. Genscher talked with Brezhnev and other high Soviet officials about theater nuclear weapons in Europe. But he didn't force the Polish issue, because the Russians showed sensitivity. Which, in fact, is exactly the reason to come across loud and clear on the subject.
The mood in Washington, however, does not exactly favor sharp concentration on Poland. The White House emphasis is on reassuring the country that President Reagan is alive and well and telling more jokes than ever. In keeping with that stance, the secretaries of state and defense were sent abroad last week on previously scheduled visits of no special moment. But if the Russians do move, the world will begin to wonder whether the Reagan administration can cope with problems that involve more serious business than making the American people feel good.