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Poland and the Warsaw Pact

The rise of the independent trade union Solidarity shook the foundation of communist party rule in Poland and, consequently, Soviet control of a country the Soviet Union considers critical to its security and alliance system. Given Poland's central geographic position, this unrest threatened to isolate East Germany, sever vital lines of communication to Soviet forces deployed against NATO, and disrupt Soviet control in the rest of Eastern Europe.

As in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union used the Warsaw Pact to carry out a campaign of military coercion against the Polish leadership. In 1980 and 1981, the Soviet Union conducted joint Warsaw Pact exercises with a higher frequency than at any time since 1968 to exert pressure on the Polish regime to solve the Solidarity problem. Under the cover that the exercises afforded, the Soviet Union mobilized and deployed its reserve and regular troops in the Byelorussian Military District as a potential invasion force. In the West-81 and Union-81 exercises, Soviet forces practiced amphibious and airborne assault landings on the Baltic Sea coast of Poland. These maneuvers demonstrated a ready Soviet capability for intervention in Poland.

In the midst of the Polish crisis, Warsaw Pact commander in chief Viktor Kulikov played a crucial role in intra-alliance diplomacy on behalf of the Soviet leadership. Kulikov maintained almost constant contact with the Polish leadership and conferred with the leaders of Bulgaria, East Germany, and Romania about a possible multilateral Warsaw Pact military action against Poland. In December 1981, Kulikov pressed Polish United Workers Party first secretary Wojciech Jaruzelski to activate his contingency plan for declaring martial law with the warning that the Soviet Union was ready to intervene in the absence of quick action by Polish authorities. As it turned out, the Polish government instituted martial law and suppressed Solidarity just as the Soviet press was reporting that these steps were necessary to ensure that Poland could meet its Warsaw Pact commitment to the security of the other member states.

From the Soviet perspective, the imposition of martial law by Polish internal security forces was the best possible outcome. Martial law made the suppression of Solidarity a strictly domestic affair and spared the Soviet Union the international criticism that an invasion would have generated. However, the use of the extensive Polish paramilitary police and riot troops suggested that the Soviet Union could not count on the Polish Army to put down Polish workers. Moreover, while the Brezhnev Doctrine of using force to maintain the leading role of the communist party in society was upheld in Poland, it was not the Soviet Union that enforced it.

Some questions remained as to whether the Soviet Union could have used force successfully against Poland. An invasion would have damaged the Soviet Union's beneficial détente relationship with Western Europe. Intervention would also have added to the evidence that the internal police function of the Warsaw Pact was more important than the putative external collective self-defense mission it had never exercised. Moreover, Romania, and conceivably Hungary, would have refused to contribute contingents to a multinational Warsaw Pact force intended to camouflage a Soviet invasion. Failure to gain the support of its allies would have represented a substantial embarrassment to the Soviet Union. In stark contrast to the unopposed intervention in Czechoslovakia, the Soviets probably also anticipated tenacious resistance from the general population and the Polish Army to any move against Poland. Finally, an invasion would have placed a weighty economic and military burden on the Soviet Union; the occupation and administration of Poland would have tied down at least ten Soviet Army divisions for an extended period of time. Nevertheless, had there been no other option, the Soviet Union would certainly have invaded Poland to eliminate Solidarity's challenge to communist party rule in that country.

Although the Polish Army had previously played an important role in Soviet strategy for a coalition war against NATO, the Soviet Union had to revise its plans and estimates of Poland's reliability after 1981, and it turned to East Germany as its most reliable ally. In the early 1980s, because of its eager promotion of Soviet interests in the Third World and its importance in Soviet military strategy, East Germany completed its transformation from defeated enemy and dependent ally into the premier junior partner of the Soviet Union. Ironically, East Germany's efficiency and loyalty have made the Soviet Union uncomfortable. Encroaching somewhat on the leading role of the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact, East Germany has been the only NSWP country to institute the rank of marshal, matching the highest Soviet Army rank and implying its equality with the Soviet Union.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:04:35 ZULU