THE CoNClUSIoN oF THE PolISH SOLIDARITY CRISIS in late 1981 left the Brezhnev Doctrine of Limited Sovereignty very like the man after whom it had been named: Both had become mannequins propped up by a fading imperial power desperate to preserve its role in world affairs. Following the heady successes at bloc integration in the early 1970s, mounting domestic problems in the USSR itself had prompted Moscow to reevaluate its East European commitments consistent with a narrower, less internationalist perception of Soviet interests. By the end of that decade, the sudden collapse of relations with the United States, economic stagnation, declining international prestige, and a military stalemate in the mountains of Afghanistan had combined to weaken the Kremlin's hand in world affairs. In the process, the crisis-prone region of Eastern Europe had become as much a liability as an asset. Economic mismanagement, dissident activism, and emergent nationalism compounded in the 1970s to create a considerable burden on Soviet resources. In the face of perennial legitimacy crises, its local regimes had become too reliant on the trump card of Soviet military might to preserve communist rule. This was particularly true of Poland, the country that Moscow had long regarded as the keystone of the socialist edifice in Eastern Europe.
Consequently, at the outset of the 1980s, the prospect of bold military strikes into the region no longer appeared to be consistent with Soviet national interests, even if it meant the loss of this most important European client-state. Years before Mikhail Gorbachev would initiate his historic "new thinking" in Soviet foreign policy, Moscow was already cognizant of the need to base the future of European socialism on regime legitimacy rather than on Soviet bayonets. The Kremlin accordingly relinquished its earlier insistence on enforced orthodoxy and gradually began to search for a new paradigm of limited diversity in bloc relations. Increasingly permissive Soviet leaders provided greater political autonomy to their client-states, eager to encourage resolution of internal problems without resort to Soviet assistance. In the wake of the Polish crisis of 1980-81, a policy of greater forbearance in the bloc commanded support at every level of the Soviet Party bureaucracy. Though still unaware of their accomplishment, the Polish people had forced the Soviet colossus into an imperial retreat from which it would never recover.
This process of imperial decline had unfolded over a period of many