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The Warsaw Pact: twenty years on

For over 30 years the Warsaw Pact was a threatening presence on the European political scene, but on 31 March 1991 it was disbanded with little pomp or circumstance. Alexander Cherkasov looks back over significant events in its history.

Alexander Cherkasov
31 March 2011

On 14 May 1955, the treaty that came to be known as the Warsaw Pact was signed in Warsaw. There were 7 signatories to the document’s eleven articles and preamble: Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, USSR and Czechoslovakia. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) joined in 1956; Albania ceased cooperation in 1962, eventually abandoning the Pact in 1968 in light of the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The Warsaw Treaty Organisation was, put simply, the Soviet Union’s “external empire” throughout the second half of the twentieth century. At the height of its powers, it aimed to occupy the whole continent. Crucially, the only campaign ever undertaken by the armies of “fraternal countries” was not mounted to the west, against an external enemy: it was instead the punitive expedition to crush the “Prague Spring” in 1968.

135 years earlier, the Russian Empire built the Warsaw Fortress in response to the 1830 (November) Polish uprising. It was unique in that it was not built to protect the city from an external enemy, but against the city itself. A chance coincidence, of course, but particularly symbolic.

Warsaw Pact Conference

The Warsaw Pact was an alliance formed by the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies. It evolved from a treaty signed on May 14, 1955 in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

1940s: A challenge that went without an answer

By the end of the 1940s, not only loyal, but completely subservient regimes had been established in practically all Central and Eastern European countries (the one exception to this was Austria, where there were Soviet occupying forces). Here, civil and political life was to exclude all elements of independence – whether it was the remains of pre-war political life (like Jan Masaryk in Czechslovakia) or of the anti-Hitler resistance of WWII times (like the Krajowa army [loyal to the Polish government in exile in London] in Poland). There were ideological purges and show trials in all the fraternal countries. 

The Warsaw Treaty Organisation was the Soviet Union’s “external empire” in the second half of the twentieth century.

From the beginning, the legitimacy of the new governments was vested in the power of the “bayonet”. There were various “bayonets”: the Soviet occupying administration, the security services set up with the help of “advisers” from the USSR Ministry of State Security, and the reconstituted armies, also controlled by Soviet “advisers”. Probably the best example of such “advisers” was Marshal K.K. Rokossovsky, the first Commander of the Northern Group of Forces stationed in Poland, who was appointed Polish Minister of Defence. Stalin micromanaged the “people's democracy countries” – he didn't seem to consider that they were independent entities or that he should work on building a complex system of interrelationships, even if they only had a semblance of equality.

Behind the Iron Curtain the expectation was that the Cold War would develop into the Third World War. The Soviet Army would have fought alone, regarding Eastern Europe exclusively as a theatre of military operations without any independent entities.

There was no matching response to the creation of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) on 4 April 1949 because there was absolutely no one to set up a coalition with. True, there were the economic interests: first, the remains of the advanced German military technology had to be gathered up and equipment shipped back to the USSR as part of Germany's reparation; Czechoslovakia's remaining industrial potential had to be used and enterprises had to be created to mine uranium in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania etc. In the interests of (primarily) the military-industrial complex all that was needed to integrate Eastern European economies into the Soviet economy was the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, which was set up that same year.

The main problem, however, was the incompatibility of the component parts: levels of loyalty were too varied. Soon after Stalin's death [5 March 1953] it became apparent that the “social engineering” tried and tested in the USSR – mass repression, collectivisation etc. – produced the opposite result in Europe. The first signs of this were the mass protests in Berlin on 17 June 1953: they were put down with Soviet tanks, but Poland and Hungary were still to come.

The Soviet response to NATO came not at the height of the Cold War, or during the late Stalin years, but six years later when the Krushchev “thaw” was in full swing.  Why was this?

1950s: the asymmetrical response

The Krushchev thaw didn't just bring new problems, but windows of opportunity too. At that time, however, the Soviet leadership did not seem united in their opinion on the fate of Europe. In 1953, for example, Lavrenty Beria proposed to the Politburo that Germany should be permitted to unite in exchange for its neutrality (this was subsequently used as a black mark against him following his arrest).

The received wisdom is that the Warsaw Pact was formed as a reaction to the Federal Republic of Germany becoming a member of NATO on 6 May 1955. But there is another no less significant “coincidence”: on 15 May 1955, the day after the Warsaw Pact was signed, the Allied Powers signed the Austrian State Treaty and the occupying forces withdrew from Austria. After the enactment of the treaty, Austria declared itself permanently neutral.

On 19 October 1956, the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration was signed. Under the terms of this Declaration, the USSR and Japan would work towards the signing of a peace treaty, in which case Japan would receive two islands of the Small Kuril Chain [Habomai and Shikotan] in consideration of her subsequent neutrality. In recent years this agreement is occasionally remembered, although considerably less frequently that the Kuril Question is discussed.

Nikita Khrushchev used to reminisce that originally the Warsaw Pact's most important goal was its dissolution, in exchange for NATO doing the same thing. Then, it didn't then seem so impossible. But the NATO bloc refused to disband and 3 years later refused the Warsaw Pact Organisation  proposal of a non-aggression pact.

As a result, the Warsaw Pact existed for over 30 years, gradually filling what had been an empty shell with quite specific and lethal content: the readiness to occupy Western Europe and strangle freedom in Eastern Europe.

Poster 35 anniversaqry

A poster marking the 35th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact. Only one year later, the alliance was disbanded.

1960s – implosion

  • On 4 November 1956 Soviet forces crushed the Hungarian Uprising. The new status of the Southern Group of Forces was formalised in the agreement of 28 May 1957 between the USSR and Hungary. Special Corps units had been deployed here from Austria in 1955.
  • On 21 August 1968 the armies of five Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechslovakia. By 16 October the agreement between Czechslovakia and the USSR had formalised the status of the Central Group of Forces.
  • On 13 December 1981 martial law was introduced in Poland – with no external intervention or involvement of the Soviet Northern Group of Forces which had been stationed in the country since 1945.

In the West this was called the Brezhnev Doctrine:  Eastern European countries were no longer to be micromanaged by the USSR, which was building its security system based on the concept of “limited sovereignty”. The importance of reciprocal commitments as part of the pan-European confrontation was the cause often cited at the time. To my mind, another explanation would seem more logical, and that is that non-elected regimes were simply afraid of the “domino effect”, and were obliged to depend on each other. It was only the “bayonets” that kept them in power, because in all the “people's democracy” countries the police and state security service were more numerous than the rather small armies. But the home army under the control of the home state security service was, it turned out, not enough on its own – the regimes depended on the presence of Soviet troops.

Over the years, the “discipline and order” sections of the various barracks in the Socialist Camp showed themselves ready to do what the others did. The only serious, non-training operation of Warsaw Pact troops took place nowhere near Western Europe. On the night of 20/21 August 1968 the Combined Forces (a name echoing to this day in Chechnya) started their invasion of Czechoslovakia. General I.G. Pavlovsky commanded a force of 500,000 men and up to 5,000 units of armoured vehicles. In Prague, the operation was coordinated by USSR Central Committee member K.T. Mazurov. The Prague Spring so scared the “older brother” and its allies that the planning of the operation codenamed Danube had started as early as April 1968.

The Warsaw Treaty was a convenient tool in the preparation of an attack. Under cover of the “Šumava” training exercises (20-30 June), 16,000 soldiers were able to enter Czechoslovakia. The “Neman” exercises (23 July – 10 August) meanwhile enabled the USSR, GDR and Poland to redeploy forces and concentrate them on the northern and eastern borders of Czechoslovakia.

In time, Eastern European countries no longer had to be micromanaged by the USSR, which was building its security system based on the concept of “limited sovereignty”.

The Pricarpathian (USSR and Poland) and Central (Poland and GDR) fronts were established on the main axes. In the first few hours, two Soviet airborne divisions captured Prague Airport and other important sites. Then the advance echelon of 170,000 Soviet, 40,000 Polish, 15,000 Hungarian and 2,000 Bulgarian soldiers took control of the city. The total fatality rate for Czechoslovakia was 100, with more than 500 injured. The invading armies lost approximately 100, mainly non-combatants. At the start of September  the troops left the cities and withdrew to their garrisons; and on 17 October troops began pulling out altogether.

Tank Prague

On the night of 20/21 August 1968, the Combined Forces began their invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Then began the process of normalisation i.e. the conservation of the regime. The repression of the Prague Spring made any reconsideration of the unequal relations between the Soviet Union and the countries of the socialist camp impossible. It was a demonstration of strength in face of possible internal opposition in all the Warsaw Pact countries. It told people a few simple truths: change and evolution was impossible, and only those able to adapt themselves to the system would be allowed to live.

On 25 February 1991, the remaining Warsaw Pact member states signed the so-called “Budapest Declaration”. With this, they declared themselves “liberated from the heritage of the past, the age of confrontation and the break-up of the continent”. On 31 March, twenty years ago to this day, the military and organisational structures of the organisation were disbanded.

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