Heated discussions within the Soviet Politburo regarding Jaruzelski’s requests of economic aid for Poland are especially revealing. Well aware that unrest in Poland had been provoked by her dramatic economic situation, especially by chronic food shortages and price hikes of up to 100% for already heavily rationed meat, the Soviet Union was unable to fulfill even its previous obligations of economic aid to Poland, so Jaruzelski’s increased demands tied to the imposition of martial law were met by the Kremlin with irritation that may be explained only by the economic despair of the Soviet Union itself: “Brezhnev: And are we able to give this much now? Baibakov: Leonid Illich, it can be given only by drawing on state reserves or at the expense of deliveries to the internal market.”
The issue of economic aid points to another factor shaping Soviet Union policy regarding Poland at the time: the impending economic disaster brewing in the Soviet Union itself. Its centrally-planned economy, riddled with systemic inefficiencies, additionally burdened with defense expenditures reaching 30-40% of GDP in the midst of the Cold War and a perceived ideological obligation to support both the equally inefficient economies of Eastern Bloc countries and a wide array of revolutionary “liberation movements” throughout the Third World, could barely feed its own notoriously undersupplied population. Imposing martial law in Poland was a dramatic step to preserve the socialist regime there and to stabilize it against social unrest, but it was also fully expected to cause dramatic economic sanctions by the West, sanctions that had to be compensated by an increase of “fraternal assistance” from both the Soviet Union and other countries of the Eastern Bloc. That was already a sufficiently bitter pill to swallow. But the alternative was even worse: a direct military intervention to restore the status quo undertaken either by the Soviet Union alone or by the Warsaw Pact structures would cause Western economic and political sanctions to be imposed against the Soviet Union itself—and on the Eastern Bloc as a whole. This was an outcome neither the Soviet Union nor other Warsaw Pact allies could afford or likely sustain for any significant amount of time.
At the time, the Soviet Union was already suffering heavy international censure for its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan that would continue to drain its resources until 1989. The Reagan administration, true to its hardline policy, used the incident to highlight Soviet expansionism in the Third World and its blatant disrespect for the sovereignty of an unaffiliated non-aligned country. That position conveniently disregarded the fact that Soviet troops had moved in only after as many as 14 requests by the Kabul government for help to restore order in a country that had long been marred by tribal and regional infighting and periodically re-emerging civil war. It also conveniently forgot the U.S.’s own and not any less extensive history of highly unsavory armed interventions in the Third World in support of dictators or rebels trying to overthrow legitimate democratic governments. But publicizing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, misguided and damaging for the Soviet Union as it was in and of itself, also helped the U.S. to divert attention of public opinion away from the embarrassingly clumsy handling of the Iran crisis by the Carter administration, including the Iran hostage crisis lasting 444 days that had ended only once Reagan had already taken office. The censure of the Soviet Union for its involvement in Afghanistan did not end with the disapproval by international public opinion and the deterioration of its political relations with the West, especially with the U.S., dealing a heavy blow to years of Soviet efforts at disarmament talks. Even more painful were the economic sanctions forced on the Soviet Union by the U.S., including halting the supply of grains. As part of its plan for bringing the Soviet Union to its knees through economic pressures, the U.S. brought considerable influence to bear on its NATO allies to use the invasion of Afghanistan as grounds for alliance-wide sanctions against the Soviet Union. Although President Reagan lifted the grain embargo imposed by Carter (not least because it was also hurting the U.S. economy by affecting Midwest farmers), its repercussions were still felt throughout the Soviet Union. So any further worsening of relations with the West as a result of yet another invasion, this time not in a Third World country obscurely removed from any heretofore known U.S. sphere of interest (though the U.S. administration had been traditionally worried about gradually losing control over the oil fields of the Persian Gulf), but right in the heart of Central Europe, and in a country with extensive economic and political ties to Western Europe, most notably the Federal Republic of Germany, was simply not a realistic option any Soviet leader would likely consider entertaining.
The wisdom of not invading Poland was felt by the Soviet Union shortly thereafter: first, the long prepared Soviet project of the Helsinki process leading to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) was halted upon the news of imposition of martial law in Poland during the Madrid Review Conference, where Basket III covering human rights issues in the Eastern Bloc had already become a seriously contentious matter. Moreover the U.S. imposed sanctions not only on Poland, as had been expected, but also on the USSR itself, even though it had previously threatened the Soviet Union with sanctions only if they did, in fact, invade Poland. The measure was justified under the rather flimsy pretext of the Soviet Union’s “undue intervention” in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country. At this point, the Western allies of the U.S. broke rank by declining to accept this rationale and refused to impose sanctions on the USSR in accordance with U.S. demands. When the U.S. attempted to block the construction of an East-West oil pipeline that would benefit both the Soviet Union and Western Europe, there was an outcry among the European allies about infringement on their own economic sovereignty and a violation of international law. It is worth noting that the blocking of this pipeline had been planned by the U.S. administration already several months earlier, showing that the U.S. had fully expected a military intervention in Poland. However, it did not plan to go to great lengths to prevent this course of events, only to prepare harsh consequences. When the situation was eventually resolved domestically without involving Soviet troops, the U.S. decided for its own reasons to proceed with the prepared sanctions anyway. The obvious conclusion that the U.S. focus was not so much on restoration of human rights in Poland but on strategic advantage in the polarity of U.S.-Soviet relations finds its reflection also in the fact that, despite imposing some sanctions on Poland, the U.S. did not declare a default on the country’s significant debt even after Jaruzelski announced that Poland would be unable to service its international financial obligations. Instead, the U.S. government not only deferred Polish payments, but also actually paid Polish sovereign debt to U.S. private banks and thus prevented other foreign banks from declaring Poland in default. The Reagan administration’s confrontational rhetoric jarred its Western European allies when their own economic interests were exposed to risk, as was the case in the matter of the contentious U.S. sanctions against the Soviet Union in 1981. Thus some measure of rapprochement between Western Europe and the Soviet Union was preserved, even though this resulted in the appearance of a rift between U.S. policies and those of its European allies. Had the Soviet Union actually sent troops to Poland, the attitude of Western Europe would in all likelihood have been quite different.
Other good reasons for not invading Poland were the internal consequences of such a move, both for the Soviet Union and for Poland. A large-scale military operation would have come at a very high cost for the Soviet Union at a most inopportune time; feeding the uncooperative population of an occupied country would have proved even more expensive. The principal problem was, however, that quashing social unrest by Soviet troops would inevitably have been exceedingly costly in terms of human lives. Historical anti-Russian sentiments of Poles were shaped by more than three centuries of neighborly tensions, wars and occupations. Poland had been partitioned between its neighbors Russia, Prussia and Austria at least three times during that period, with the last partition ending as late as 1918, and lasting 123 years. And only considerably more recently, Poland had suffered significant territorial losses to the USSR under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. Anti-Russian sentiments had been kept in check somewhat effectively by communist propaganda and repression, but notions of Polish-Soviet brotherly love never really caught on like they did in Bulgaria where Tsar Alexander II had in 1878 liberated a Christian Slavic population from five centuries of Ottoman rule. Anti-Russian sentiments in Poland were especially common given a profoundly Catholic society not educated in the Soviet Union the way its imposed communist leaders had been. There was certainly a reason why Soviet troops stationed in Poland pursuant to the Warsaw Pact and purportedly as a security backstop against anticipated Western, most notably West German, hostility were kept as far out of sight of the general population as possible, stationed in remote closed garrisons. Any open hostility of the Soviet army (or, even worse, Soviet and East German armies within the structures of the Warsaw Pact, since the population of Poland still well remembered the egregious atrocities committed on its population by occupying Nazi Germany) would have been but a welcome pretext for all-out nationalist rebellion understood as a war of independence that would have drenched the entire country in blood. The fact that up to 75 million Americans claim Polish descent of some form, including President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, cannot be denied some place in the analysis of possible reactions of international public opinion, especially in the U.S., where a newly elected president had bet his administration on a hardened U.S. foreign policy against what he later proceeded to call the “Evil Empire.” In the wake of the Soviet public relations disaster in Afghanistan, and in an era of enduring necessity of detente efforts, an invasion of Poland was the last thing the Soviet Union needed or could afford.
One might argue that the Soviet Union had a third alternative: rather than crack down on the opposition in Poland with either domestic or external military force, it could stabilize the situation by political means. However, such a normalization of internal situation in Poland proved quite elusive due to broad popular support for the Solidarity movement in spite of increased propaganda and administrative efforts at containing the spread of ideas of self-determination. Polish communist cadres were badly trained and notoriously apathetic, but they had still somehow managed to impart on the working masses certain classical Marxist-Leninist ideas of self-government. Of course, the dictatorial Polish party leadership never seriously intended to grant the proletariat any actual powers of self-determination, and even if it had, it would have been impossible to obtain Soviet blessing. Ideas of the Polish leadership about inducting three blue-collar workers into their party’s supreme governing body, the Polish Politburo, were resoundingly criticized by their Soviet counterparts who would approve at most one such labor representative. Thus, by using nothing more than free speech and a sense of empowerment of the working masses as introduced by the communists themselves, Polish opposition leaders did not have to go farther than to adopt ideologically unassailable Marxist-Leninist forms of meetings, resolutions and union structures to channel worker’s dissatisfaction into properly organized forms of protest culminating in regional and general strikes determined to make their voices heard. The Kremlin certainly recognized the danger of intellectuals concentrated around KSS KOR for extending the dissatisfaction of the labor force with economic and working conditions into the area of politics and government, and it advised Jaruzelski early on to infiltrate the Solidarity leadership with trusted communists to emasculate and control the power of the new popular movement by means of sabotage and targeted disruption.