There are times in Moscow when one can feel the political temperature rising, but this is not one of them.
With the approach of an extraordinary congress of the Polish Communist Party on Tuesday that is likely to endorse the country's democratization drive, the balance of expert opinion here holds that the Soviets have no immediate intention of using force against the Polish reformers.
After repeated public warnings that Poland was drifting toward crisis -- that it already was in the grip of a counterrevolution that was threatening socialism---Soviet news dispatches and commentaries in recent days have focused instead on such wide-ranging subjects as the anniversary of the Mongolian People's Republic, British riots and South Africa's racist policies.
In the past week there have been only three substantive articles on Poland, the nominal citadel of the Warsaw Pact. Their tone was restrained and clearly aimed at influencing developments within the Polish party.
[In an account from Warsaw of the final preparations for the congress, Soviet television said tonight that Marxist-Leninist forces among Poland's Communists face a difficult political struggle, Reuter reported. "It is not just a matter of some people focusing their attention on economic difficulties and on problems of everyday life, and others concentrating on the political crisis, while a third group is worried about moral problems, and each one proposes his way out of the situation," the report said, adding that there are "much deeper differences of opinion."]
Soviet officials in private conversations contend that Moscow can tolerate the changes under consideration in Warsaw, just as it has learned to live with the economic and social deviations in Yugoslavia and Hungary.
Some go so far as to suggest that the Polish crisis may turn out to be the welcome impetus for economic and other reforms in the Soviet Union.
All this does not mean that the expert judgment is necessarily correct. It is recalled here that there was a similar lull in 1968 that led the then American ambassador, Lewellyn Thompson, to conclude that he could safely depart on vacation three days before Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia.
The senior U.S. official here now, Charge d'Affaires Jack Matlock, was a middle-ranking officer at the embassy in 1968. He also left town with Thompson.
Yet, the available evidence suggests that the Kremlin leaders have not made any firm decision on how to cope with the events in Poland and that a majority of them believe they retain considerable political means to influence the developments.
Apart from the political, economic and military costs involved in a military intervention, several elements are seen here as creating favorable conditions for the nonmilitary options.
One is Poland's geography. Surrounded by the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and the Baltic Sea, Poland could not be detached from the Warsaw Pact without a major upheaval. So far, all Polish factions have taken full account of this reality. As one source put it, "For the first time in their history the Poles may be benefiting from their geography."
This was an allusion to frequent past partitions of Poland. But it also was a hint that the Kremlin may tolerate considerable deviations in a country that has no common border with the West.
The other element is the nationalistic tone of Poland's renewal. Given the tradition of Russo-Polish enmity, this had tended to contain the threat of reformist infection in Russia itself, although not in smaller republics in its periphery.
In Russia, which is the largest and most important component of the Soviet Union, the reaction of an average citizen to the events in Poland has not been sympathetic. Hostile comments come frequently, such as: "We freed them from the Germans and look what they are doing," "They don't want to work and are waiting for us to bail them out economically," or just "What do they want?"
Such indignation at what is generally perceived as Polish ingratitude suggests that the Kremlin leaders would not face domestic resistance should they decide to use force in Poland.
But the drawn-out Afghanistan intervention is believed to have made Moscow particularly wary about new and far more costly military expeditions.
From the military standpoint, most of the necessary groundwork has been laid. Yet, according to Western analysts, the fact that the military option remains open is at the moment a form of pressure on the Polish party to reestablish authority in the country.
There are hints here that the real Soviet fears are focused on what could be a drift toward internal chaos in Poland that may force the Soviets to intervene in the future.
Renewed strikes and a rapid decline of the Polish economy may eventually produce such economic dislocations and shortages that a new and more dangerous popular discontent could bring about the collapse of authority.
It is in this context that the outcome of the congress and the election of new leaders are given significance here as indicators of the future.