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THE WARSAW PACT, 1970-87 - Détente

The crisis in Czechoslovakia and Romania's recalcitrance gave a new dimension to the challenge facing the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union's East European allies had learned that withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and achieving independence from Soviet control were unrealistic goals, and they aimed instead at establishing a greater measure of autonomy within the alliance. Romania had successfully carved out a more independent position within the bounds of the Warsaw Pact. In doing so, it provided an example to the other East European countries of how to use the Warsaw Pact councils and committees to articulate positions contrary to Soviet interests. Beginning in the early 1970s, the East European allies formed intra-alliance coalitions in Warsaw Pact meetings to oppose the Soviet Union, defuse its pressure on any one NSWP member state, and delay or obstruct Soviet policies. The Soviets could no longer use the alliance to transmit their positions to, and receive an automatic endorsement from, the subordinate NSWP countries. While still far from genuine consultation, Warsaw Pact policy coordination between the Soviet Union and the East European countries in the 1970s was a step away from the blatant Soviet control of the alliance that had characterized the 1950s. East European opposition forced the Soviet Union to treat the Warsaw Pact as a forum for managing relations with its allies and bidding for their support on issues like détente, the Third World, the Solidarity crisis in Poland, alliance burden-sharing, and relations with NATO.

In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union abandoned its earlier efforts to achieve the simultaneous dissolution of the two European military blocs and concentrated instead on legitimizing the territorial status quo in Europe. The Soviets asserted that the official East-West agreements reached during the détente era "legally secured the most important political-territorial results of World War II." Under these arrangements, the Soviet Union allowed its East European allies to recognize West Germany's existence as a separate state. In return the West, and West Germany in particular, explicitly accepted the inviolability of all postwar borders in Eastern Europe and tacitly recognized Soviet control of the eastern half of both Germany and Europe. The Soviets claim the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which ratified the existing political division of Europe, as a major victory for Soviet diplomacy and the realization of longstanding Soviet calls, issued through the PCC, for a general European conference on collective security.

The consequences of détente, however, also posed a significant challenge to Soviet control of Eastern Europe. First, détente caused a crisis in Soviet-East German relations. East Germany's leader, Walter Ulbricht, opposed improved relations with West Germany and, following Ceausescu's tactics, used Warsaw Pact councils to attack the Soviet détente policy openly. In the end, the Soviet Union removed Ulbricht from power, in 1971, and proceeded unhindered into détente with the West. Second, détente blurred the strict bipolarity of the cold war era, opened Eastern Europe to greater Western influence, and loosened Soviet control over its allies. The relaxation of East-West tensions in the 1970s reduced the level of threat perceived by the NSWP countries, along with their perceived need for Soviet protection, and eroded Warsaw Pact alliance cohesion. After the West formally accepted the territorial status quo in Europe, the Soviet Union was unable to point to the danger of "imperialist" attempts to overturn East European communist party regimes to justify its demand for strict Warsaw Pact unity behind its leadership, as it had in earlier years. The Soviets resorted to occasional propaganda offensives, accusing West Germany of revanchism and aggressive intentions in Eastern Europe, to remind its allies of their ultimate dependence on Soviet protection and to reinforce the Warsaw Pact's cohesion against the attraction of good relations with the West.

Despite these problems, the détente period witnessed relatively stable Soviet-East European relations within the Warsaw Pact. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union greatly expanded military cooperation with the NSWP countries. The joint Warsaw Pact exercises, conducted in the 1970s, gave the Soviet allies their first real capability for offensive operations other than intra-bloc policing actions. The East European countries also began to take an active part in Soviet strategy in the Third World.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:00 ZULU