Warsaw Pact

Warsaw Pact logo
Warsaw Pact logo

Warsaw Pact is the informal title given to the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO), a group of Eastern European nations and the Soviet Union pledged to mutual assistance and defense. In 1955 the member nations signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance.

The Warsaw Pact’s objectives from its inception to its demise in 1991 changed, but throughout that time, the organization served as the means by which the Soviet Union bound its Eastern European client states together militarily.

The Warsaw Pact agreement replaced a series of bilateral treaties of defense and friendship between the Soviet Union and these nations. Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania joined with the Soviet Union.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had been in existence since 1949, but NATO announced in May 1955 that it would include West Germany as a member; this prompted the formation of the Warsaw Pact. Thus only 10 years after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union not only was engaged in a cold war with the West but also faced a resurgent Germany.

It was not only an external threat that moved the Soviets to change their agreements with these nations, but there was the matter of internal stability as well. Following World War II, there had been significant armed resistance to the Soviets, who had entered these nations while advancing against the retreating German armies.

Polish anti-Soviet partisans opposed the Soviets until well into the late 1940s. Demonstrations against the Soviets caused real concern about the stability of the communist elites running these countries.

By bringing in Soviet troops to occupy these countries as part of Warsaw Pact activities, the Soviet Union allowed itself to more easily defend any attacks that might come from the West and, at the same time, to keep these friendly regimes stable. East Germany joined in 1956. Yugoslavia did not join at any time.

The treaty clearly stated that national sovereignty would be respected and that all of the signatories were independent. The treaty was to last for 20 years, with an automatic 10-year extension.

Each member nation could unilaterally leave the organization; the reality proved to be very different. In 1956 the Hungarian government of Imre Nagy declared that it would no longer be allied with the Soviet Union but would become a neutral. Part of this neutrality process would be its withdrawal from the pact.

Regardless of any promises, the Soviet Union acted quickly to defeat this rebellion. Using the request of some Hungarian Communist Party members as an invitation to act, Soviet infantry and armor invaded the country and after a two-week struggle replaced Imre Nagy’s government with a more compliant government under János Kádár. Although the Soviets cited the danger of breaking up the alliance to justify the invasion, it was only Soviet troops that took part in the operation.

In the early days of the Warsaw Pact, the nature of the alliance was somewhat vague. Each of the member nations, while influenced by the Soviet Union, still had a certain amount of independence in its tactical doctrine and did not coordinate its training with either the Soviet Union or other members. That situation would change in the coming years.

From 1961 on, combined exercises were conducted, and Soviet-manufactured weapons and equipment were purchased by the member nations. High-ranking Soviet officers were assigned to the defense ministries of Warsaw Pact members to ensure a uniformity of training and to keep the national militaries subservient to and a part of the armed forces of the Soviet Union.

Although the Warsaw Pact gained cohesion in terms of command and control, there were movements that served to weaken it. In 1962 there was another defection from the Warsaw Pact, this time a successful one. In this case it involved Albania strengthening its ties to China and distancing itself from the Soviet Union.

Because Albania did not border on any other Warsaw Pact member, the Soviet Union had no choice but to accept this action. The Soviets thus lost access to a Mediterranean port. Albania’s formal defection in 1968 merely ratified what already existed.

Independent Streaks

Another unhappy member of the alliance was Romania. This country managed to conduct a very successful balancing act in staying within the alliance, exercising a surprising degree of independence, and not paying a very high price for its actions. Romania’s independent streak began as early as 1958, when it stated that Soviet troops were not welcome on its territory, continuing through 1968, when it would not participate in the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia. A child watches as Warsaw Pact tanks invade his country, August 1968, uncredited
Czechoslovakia. A child watches as Warsaw Pact tanks invade his country, August 1968

Romania’s position was that the pact existed only for self-defense and not to maintain communist elites in the separate nations. In part because Romania was loyal in other ways and because it was not close to the potential front with Germany, this independent streak went unpunished.

Not every nation was so fortunate. In late 1967 a reform movement within the Czechoslovak Communist Party caused a major change in leadership. These events were closely monitored by the Soviet leadership. After the attempted defection by Hungary 10 years before, Albania’s departure, and Romania’s distancing itself, the Soviets were concerned that any reform or liberalization might weaken their control over this state.

The continued freedom of the press and freedom of expression forced the Soviets to act. On the night of August 20–21, Soviet troops, assisted by forces from Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Poland, invaded.

Combined Warsaw Pact exercises had been taking place that summer, and the Warsaw Pact nations had been able to stage their invasion and subsequently move quickly into the country. The Czechoslovak government was changed, and there was no more discussion of changing Czechoslovakia’s role in the Warsaw Pact.

Thirteen years later, the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia influenced another nation. This time it was Poland, where vigorous opposition appeared in the form of the labor union Solidarity. By the end of 1981, after almost two years of liberalization, the Communist government of Poland imposed martial law.

Union leaders were imprisoned, the union was declared illegal, and Polish soldiers took over many of the government’s functions. The rationale for this move was that the imposition of martial law by Polish authorities would eliminate the possibility of a repetition of the events of 1968.

Soviet Leadership

As the 1980s wore on, there were significant changes in Soviet leadership. Leonid Brezhnev, who had ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia and threatened the same for Poland, died in 1982. He was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who had, earlier in his career, restored order to Hungary after its unsuccessful rebellion in 1956. Andropov, died in 1984 and was for a few months succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko. With the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in 1985, relationships between the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact slowly changed.

That year the Warsaw Pact came up for renewal, and the members agreed to another 20-year term to be followed by a 10-year extension, as had been done 30 years before. It became recognized that there would be no more interventions such as the ones that had taken place in Czechoslovakia and had been threatened in Poland.

The Warsaw Pact still, however, existed as a force with over 6,300,000 soldiers—20 percent of whom were non-Soviet. The resolution of the Euromissile crisis and changing politics within the Soviet Union were leading to other changes.

At the end of 1988 Gorbachev announced that there would be troop withdrawals from East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The power elites did not look forward to this, as their position within their own countries had been strengthened against dissidents and other opposition by the presence of the Soviet army.

Romanian Revolution 1989 image - Warsaw Pact
Romanian Revolution 1989 image - Warsaw Pact

Early in 1989 the Hungarian government removed its barbed wire barriers along its border with Austria, and Solidarity scored well in a partially free election. Before the year was out, the regimes had changed in Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Although there were some attempts to keep the Warsaw Pact alive as a political organization, the Warsaw Pact ended in 1991.

Eight years later three former members of the Warsaw Pact—Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary—joined NATO. In 2004 former members Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia joined, as did three former republics of the Soviet Union—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

The Warsaw Pact never functioned as smoothly as desired. There was a great deal of distrust between the Soviet Union and the member states and among the member states themselves. Several of these countries had not enjoyed good relations before World War II and still harbored ill feelings toward each other.

Also, although the Soviet Union, could compel these nations to buy Soviet equipment and essentially to become part of the Soviet army, they could not force complete obedience in all matters. Despite Soviet demands that pact members buy substantial amounts of military equipment, many of the nations refused to do so.

The purchase of military equipment presented another difficulty. Arms purchases would bring in cash desired by the Soviet Union, and it wanted these nations to field equipment compatible with Soviet issue. On the other hand, the Soviets did not want other pact members to have armies, air forces, or navies that could present obstacles to the Soviet Union.

Although the Warsaw Pact sent advisers and provided military aid to Soviet clients, there never was a conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. To predict that pact forces would have fought unreservedly to protect the Soviet Union and socialism is an unrealistic assumption.