The abandonment of the Warsaw Pact part 1

Earlier, we highlighted a Polish dissident like Milczanowski, whose most important experience during his life was his father’s disappearance when he was a child. And was something that stayed with him for the next fifty years. Just like his father, he became a lawyer. And when later, he was asked to restructure the intelligence branch of Poland.

Poland was in an unusual position. It had embassies in countries that Americans couldn’t access. Many of those embassies sat on large plots of land, a legacy of the Cold War, where, as a socialist brother, Poland had been offered choice swaths of real estate in central locations. This was true in Beijing; it was confirmed in Pyongyang, where Poland’s embassy occupied a campus near the much smaller British mission.

When the Russian started to be concerned they might lose Poland; they now came up with their admittance (something Poles knew all along) that fifty years earlier, Soviet forces had perpetrated the Katyn Massacre, murdering twenty-two thousand Polish military officers, government officials and leading intellectuals from April to May 1940.

Because of his position,  Milczanowski was the first to see the actual list of names of those who were killed. Going down the list, he stumbled on the name of his father.

When later Putin would rise to power during the Munich Security Conference of 2007, he announced that ‘I am here to say what y think about international security problems,’ he told his fellow world leaders. Just like any war, the Cold War left us with live ammunition, figuratively speaking. Later following the alliance summit in Madrid in 1997, Clinton would fly to Warsaw on 10 July

By then, however, the painful decline in US-Russian cooperation had started to reverse a long run of success in arms control; letting a decades-long trend lapse, Clinton and Yeltsin failed to conclude any significant new arms control accords.1 Nuclear targeting of US and European cities instead resumed under Putinnwho, in December 1999, started a reign that would be measured in decades. For US relations with Russia, these events signaled, if not a refreezing back to Cold War conditions precluding all cooperation, then the onset of a killing frost.

Very different from today in 2014, when the Russians launched the Donbas War, Putin boasted that Russian forces could easily invade Ukraine should he choose. He noted Russian troops could be in Kyiv in under a month. Arming a country the size of Ukraine with sufficient military equipment to fight the Russians solider-to-solider would be a Heraclean effort. So that’s not what the United States has done. The Americans have provided the Ukrainians with Javelin anti-tank missiles. If today such a war came, the Russians could still reach Kyiv. But it would likely take three months instead of one. The Russians could still conquer all of Ukraine. But it would likely take over the year rather than less than three months. The toll on the invaders would be high, and most of all, the war would only be the beginning. After “victory,” the Russians would have to occupy a country of 45 million people.

The initial abandonment of the Warsaw Pact concerns one of the first critical steps that happened not in Germany but in Hungary, where reformist leaders showed open willingness to cooperate with the West in the teeth of opposition from their more hard-line Warsaw Pact allies. Budapest would not, however, have dared to jump ship without several major precursors – most notably the rise to power of a reform-minded Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985.

As Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs, “people deserve a better life – that was always on my mind.” His optimism and call for new thinking inspired reformers all across the Warsaw Pact, particularly the long-suppressed Solidarity movement in Poland, which achieved a power-sharing regime in Warsaw.2 The courage of Polish dissident leaders such as Lech Wałęsa, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, inspired other activists. Through the dark years of repression, despite frequently being under house arrest or detention, eventually, he would rise to the presidency in Poland.

The reason Hungary did not simply announce it was leaving the pact outright, according to a confidential West German assessment, was that such a rupture might endanger Gorbachev. Budapest did not want to risk reactionaries toppling the Soviet leader with matters going so well.3 Hungary’s behavior prompted Soviet analysts to speculate what would happen if Warsaw Pact states with Soviet troops on their territory demanded those troops leave – or, even worse if the Baltics demanded to leave the Soviet Union. The West German ambassador in Moscow reported home that “the search for a substitute for the Warsaw Pact” was already on. The Soviet leader had “looked benignly, or at least indifferently,” at “what was happening inside Eastern Europe until the Wall fell. Then he got scared.”4

Meanwhile, in London, Soviet diplomats did not even pause to proofread the English translation of Gorbachev’s garbled plea before hand-delivering it to Thatcher: “I have just conveyed to chancellor Kohl an oral message, the content of which I consider necessary to disclose to You.”

Commenting from Moscow, the British ambassador to the USSR, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, took this anxious plea as a sign that Gorbachev’s “problem now is to control the forces he has unleashed,” adding, “I do not think the Russians know-how” to regain such control.5 Like Having temporarily headed off a Soviet ultimatum; Kohl was weary of the tumult and yearning for a holiday break. But 1989 held one more crucial development in store. The chancellor finally took time to go to East Germany, which he had not yet done since the opening of the Wall – and was overwhelmed by what he found.

Helmut Kohl (Chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998) agreed to give a public speech in Dresden on the night of December 19, just two weeks after the protesters there had backed away from Putin. It is possible, indeed probable, that the young KGB officer stopped throwing files in the furnace long enough to listen to a broadcast of Kohl’s remarks or even attend in person. Later in life, Putin admitted to another time during the East German revolution when he “stood in the crowd and watched it happen,” so perhaps he did the same with Kohl’s speech; it was given outdoors, not far from his outpost.

The source of Kohl’s leverage was the significance of his country to NATO. Given the number of troops and atomic weapons on German soil – by 1990, divided Germany had the highest concentration of nuclear arms per square mile anywhere on the planet – a decision by Kohl to demand removal of those forces from some or all of his territory in exchange for unity would have profound consequences for the viability of not just of NATO but Western defense and transatlantic relations writ large.6

As the West German chancellor, explained to British foreign minister Douglas Hurd on May 15, 1990, “foreign policy was like mowing grass for hay. You had to gather what you had cut in case of a thunderstorm.” The chancellor fully expected “that in 12 months, we would wake up and read that there had been a major turn for the worse in the Kremlin.”7 It was crucial to gather the harvest before that storm. The harvest’s key components had been agreed on at Camp David: a unified Germany fully in NATO, meaning the extension of Article 5 to its eastern region – that is, across the Cold War front line. Because of President George H. W. Bush’s success in getting Kohl to link unification with expansion in this way, the fight for German unity and the fight for NATO’s future beyond the old inner-German dividing line became the same.

Clinton – the person whose definition of interest mattered most – that not one inch of a territory need be off-limits to alliance troops or nuclear weapons. Clinton believed that it was in the US interests to have the “broadest, deepest alliance” possible. Acting accordingly, he presided over the alliance’s fiftieth anniversary in 1999 in a way that ensured NATO could enlarge not just that year, but repeatedly and without restrictions in the coming decades.8 

The alliance thereby gained a border with Russia – where Polish territory met Russian around the Kaliningrad enclave – and opened its door to many future members, including the Baltic states.9  When Estonia subsequently joined, NATO’s border moved again, to less than a hundred miles from President Vladimir Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. 10 In 1989, the distance was roughly 1,200 miles. This result fulfilled the justified hopes of many states oppressed by the Soviet Union in the past and worried about aggression from Moscow in the future. Yet American and Russian choices, in a series of cumulative interactions, had also yielded a less desirable result: a post–Cold War order that looked much like its Cold War predecessor, but with a more easterly European dividing line. 

As for why and how did the United States decide to enlarge NATO after the Cold War,  the “why” and the “how” evolved in tandem between 1989 and 1999, effectively a series of three presidential turns of the ratchet. This tool allows motion in one direction only. The first turn occurred in 1990. Asked after the fall of the Berlin Wall whether to achieve German unification, he would compromise with Moscow over NATO’s future; President George H. W. Bush responded, “to hell with that.” The reason behind that attitude – his “why” – was his firm belief in the need to ensure that an expanded Atlantic Alliance served as the dominant security organization beyond the Cold War.

To achieve that goal, Bush opposed all options – including ones promoted by his West German allies for contingent enlargement – short of extending full Article 5 guarantees beyond the inner-German line of 1989. His efforts to perpetuate NATO’s leading role were neither surprising nor unjustified, given the way the Cold War order, anchored by the alliance, had brought success for Washington. The president’s defense of an existing American-led institution also had the power of precedent. International organizations, once entrenched, persist. 11 NATO remaining the dominant European security organization conformed to that pattern. However, what was surprising was Bush’s ability to publicize the results of his efforts as a “new world order,” since it was not. 

His strategy also raised the tricky question of what it would cost to remain unwavering on the need to expand Article 5 eastward while persuading the Soviet Union to permit Germany to unify. Bush astutely turned to German chancellor Helmut Kohl to meet that cost. Kohl had deep pockets and was willing to pay Moscow’s price to unite his divided country. Bush and Kohl achieved both German unity and NATO’s enlargement of Article 5 territory beyond the Cold War border on October 3, 1990. This combined achievement was a significant precedent; even better, Washington and Bonn got Moscow to enshrine both components in writing, specifically in the treaty that enabled German unification – thereby completing the first turn of the ratchet. 

But the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union, followed by the USSR’s unexpected collapse, created vast new uncertainties – not least about its nuclear arsenal. Making matters yet more complicated was the unfortunate timing of several significant events. The emerging Russian state was most open to cooperation with America at a time – 1991 to 1992 – when the United States has fixated not just on the First Gulf War and a presidential election but also on a change of White House occupants. As leaders in Washington

Were juggling all of those dramatic events, the window of opportunity for establishing a more cooperative post–Cold War order with Russia was gradually closing.12 Different actions while that window remained open could have had far-reaching consequences. Reconsideration of Bush-era policies, such as the lack of debt forgiveness for Russia, might have helped the nascent democracy in Moscow. But by mid-1993, when Clinton got most of his team in place, hyperinflation and corruption in Russia were already weakening democracy’s prospects, and Yeltsin and the extremists in the parliament were heading for violent conflict. Meanwhile, Central and Eastern European states, newly freed from the Warsaw Pact, had made clear their desire for alliance membership – and when push came to shove, Clinton agreed with them, not least because he believed alliance expansion would stabilize all of the post– Cold War Europe. That belief was his “why” for enlargement. 

Once in office, Clinton nonetheless tried to maintain cooperation with Moscow by implementing NATO’s enlargement: through an incremental partnership strategy that made Article 5 guarantees a possibility in the longer term for states that performed well as partners. Launched by his Pentagon – not least by the chairman of the JCS, General John Shalikashvili, whom the president tasked with selling the idea to Poland, the land of the general’s birth – this strategic vision was not wildly popular, but it worked. Embodied in the Partnership for Peace, the strategy offered a compromise sufficiently acceptable to crucial players, including Poland (thanks in part to Shalikashvili’s diplomacy). This Partnership also provided options for post-Soviet states – again, remarkably, with Moscow’s assent – and could have been a long-term solution not just for the Baltic states but perhaps even for Ukraine, all while sustaining Russia’s cooperation. Joint action with Moscow in Bosnia also showed that real-world military cooperation and PfP enhanced one another. In short, PfP enabled simultaneous management of many posts-Cold War contingencies across the unpredictable European chessboard.

1. This lack of any major new arms control package was particularly notable given that, as mentioned in Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, 2003, 134-35, “no other president came to Moscow so many times. (And as Bill said, probably none will do so in the future.) No other US president engaged in such intensive discussions with the leaders of our country or provided us with such large-scale aid, both economic and political.” On the lack of a major arms control accord, see  James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War, 2003, 303; see also Lorenz M. Lüthi, Cold Wars, 2020, 578-81.

2. Quotation from Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs, 1996, 59; see also James A. Baker III, The Politics of Diplomacy, 1995, 79-80; Kotkin, Armageddon Averted;; Taubman, Gorbachev. 

3. “Aufzeichnung des Vortragenden Legationsrats I. Klasse Dreher,” December 21, 1989, AAP-89, 1801, explains that all Soviet satellite states interested in reform knew “daß für die Sowjetunion der Bestand des Warschauer Paktes eine Existenzfrage ist. Ein Auseinanderbrechen des Warschauer Paktes würde die Stellung Gorbatschows vermutlich unhaltbar machen und damit den Reformprozeß in ganz Mittel- und Osteuropa einschließlich der SU im höchtsen Maße gefährden; Ausbau und Absicherung der inneren Reformen hängen mithin von der Stabilität des östlichen Bündnisses ab.” On “Rücksicht auf SU [Sowjetunion]” as a reason for not joining NATO, see American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara (online government documents (AAP)-90, 1717; on all parties in the Hungarian parliament nonetheless expressing a desire to leave the pact, see AAP-90, 786.

4. Brent Scowcroft, November 12-13, 1999, George H. W. Bush Oral History Project, Miller Center, University of Virginia GBOHP.

5. Sir R. Braithwaite (Moscow) to Mr. Hurd, November 11, 1989, Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series III, vol. 7, German Unification, 1989-1990 published British documents (DBPO) 108. 

6. The exact number and location of US nuclear weapons in NATO Europe in the 1990s is classified, but they’re apparently were about 8,000 in the 1960s; see William Burr, “The U.S. Nuclear Presence in Western Europe, 1954-1962, Part I,” July 21, 2020, EBB-714, NSA; see also  Henry Ashby Turner, Germany from Partition to Reunification: A Revised Edition of The Two Germanies Since 1945, 1992, 174. On debates over nuclear weapons in Germany, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement 1945-1963, 1999, 399; on the “Wintex” war game of “ ‘limited nuclear war,’ ” see Kristina Spohr, Post Wall, Post Square: How Bush, Gorbachev, Kohl, and Deng Shaped the World after 1989, 2020,1 

7. Gates, From the Shadows, 492; Cable, Fm Rome, telno 347, 160715Z MAY 90, “Following from Private Secretary, Secretary of State’s Call on Chancellor Kohl: 15 May,” May 16, 1990, 3-4, released to author via UK FOI, CAB Ref. IC 258 724. See also “Gespräch des Bundeskanzlers Kohl mit Außenminister Hurd, Bonn, 15. Mai 1990,” DESE 1119-20.

8. Keith Gessen, “The Quiet Americans behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio,” New York Times, May 8, 2018, https:// 2018/ 05/ 08/ magazine/ the-quiet-americans-behind-the-us-russia-imbroglio.html. 

9. Quotation from “Notes by Jeremy Rosner, Senior Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for NATO Enlargement Ratification, from meeting at the White House of President Clinton with members of Senate NATO Observer Group,” handwritten date of June 12, 1997, but from context June 11, 1997. For Talbott’s view that no democracy should be excluded from NATO, regardless of geography, see “Deputy Secretary Briefs Baltic Ambassadors,” on June 12, 1997,Department of State, Electronic Reading Room, online US documents (DS-ERR). On how the United States, as a consequence of that view, “extended the boundaries of its political and military defense perimeter very far,” see Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, 2015, xii; see also Angela Stent, Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest, 2019, 228. 

10. On Kaliningrad, see Frühling and Lasconjarias, “NATO,” 104-5; Robbie Gramer, “This Interactive Map Shows the High Stakes Missile Stand-Off between Russia and NATO in Europe,” Foreign Policy, January 12, 2017, https:// 2017/ 01/ 12/ nato-russia-missile-defense-stand-off-deterrence-anti-access-area-denial/. 

11. George Friedman, “Georgia and the Balance of Power,” New York Review of Books, September 25, 2008.

12. The persistence and role of international organizations, and their interactions with major states, are the subject of extensive scrutiny by political scientists.See among others Robert O. Keohane , Joseph S. Nye Jr., et al., After the Cold War: International Institutions and State Strategies in Europe, 1989-1991 (Center for International Affairs), 1993.

Keohane, Nye, and Hoffmann, After the Cold War, 19, 382-83. The editors write, “it is hardly surprising that in a period of rapid and unanticipated change governments were more likely to attempt to use what was available than to try to redesign international institutions to meet their own standards of perfection” (382).

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