Direkt zum Inhalt | Direkt zur Navigation

W. Loth, The Soviet Non-intervention in Poland, 1980/81

Lelewel-Gespräche 6/2012

Wilfried Loth

The Soviet Non-intervention in Poland, 1980/81 *


Was there a danger of military intervention of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops in the Polish Crisis of 1980/81? At first glance, the answer seems to be: yes. In late 1980, not only did the Soviet troops continue their joint maneuvers with units of the Polish army, but they also began to plan the yearly collective Warsaw Pact exercise, the so-called "Sojuz" manoeuvers, in a way that would easily allow them to turn the manoeuvers into a military intervention against the Solidarity movement. For this purpose, four Soviet, one East German, and two Czech divisions were supposed to be called to Poland to support the Polish army’s declaration of martial law. Should this not suffice, eleven Soviet and three East German additional divisions were to be deployed. On December 3, the Supreme Commander of the Warsaw Pact, Marshal Victor Kulikov, asked the Polish Minister of Defense, Wojciech Jaruzelski, to agree to the entry of troops on December 8 – according to Jaruzelski with the specification that the Polish troops meanwhile were to remain in their quarters.


However, if you look on the minutes of the Soviet Politburo – actually mostly provided by our colleague Mark Kramer – it seems that Moscow did not really think about intervening but instead intended the maneuver to be a threating gesture aimed at getting the Polish leadership to finally declare martial law. When the Politburo discussed the Polish question on October 19, 1980, no-one suggested a repetition of the procedure of August 1968 in Czechoslovakia. On the contrary: Chief ideologist Michail Suslov explicitly warned of applying force. He recalled how in 1970 Gierek’s predecessor Gomulka had suppressed workers’ unrest by military means, despite the fact that the Soviet comrades had warned against this. Suslov then pointed to the fatal consequences the deployment had had for Gomulka’s position of power and for the reputation of the Polish Worker’s Party. KGB-chief Jurii Andropov, Defence Minister Dimitrii Ustinov and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko agreed that there was no way to resolve the crisis with military means since they would only make matters worse. Ever since a meeting of the party leaders of all Pact members on December 5, the Moscow leadership focused its hope on the Polish friends. There was no more talk about military support.


The internal consultations now fairly openly stated the reasons for the Soviet restraint. There were the fear of bloodshed, the uncertainty as to whether a military intervention would be successful, and a sense that Socialism really could not be rescued by military means. Also important for the decision not to intervene were the experiences in Czechoslovakia and in Afghanistan, where the intervention of December 1979 had not proven to be the casual stroll the Politburo had thought it would be. It was also of major importance that this time, different from the Prague spring crisis, the Moscow leaders were not influenced by horror scenarios of supposed conspiracies initiated by the CIA or other "imperialist" forces but believed that it was the workers and nobody else, the class they supposedly represented, against whom they wanted to apply their military force.


Here you can see the first effects of 12 years of Western détente: it had allowed the Soviet leaders – basically still the same people who had made the decision of 1968 – to develop a growing sense of proportion. The insistence of the Western promoters of détente had helped those Soviets in charge to overcome their fears of encirclement, and had thus allowed them to adopt a more realistic look both at their interests and at the conditions in their empire.


In addition, détente had allowed for a second effect: the cooperative net constructed in the process of détente had become so important that the Soviet leadership did not wish to undermine it unnecessarily by military intervention in Poland. The respective warnings of Helmut Schmidt and Giscard d’Estaing were insistent enough, and the worsening of American-Soviet relations after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan definitely spoke for itself. Another adventure in Poland would mean jeopardizing any hope of reaching arms reductions agreements à la SALT, and it would also make economic cooperation impossible. In a conversation with Erich Honecker and Gustav Husak, the Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Tichonov categorically stated: "In the present international situation an intervention would not work." 1


These reasons were so compelling that Moscow still clung to the decision not to intervene when in the spring of 1981, the Polish leadership gave up the plan to find an "internal solution," while a majority of the Polish United Workers’ Party began, under the impression of the continuing strikes and demands for political reform, to move towards a Social Democratic course. When in the late summer of 1981 the constitution of a coalition government with representatives of Solidarity and the Church was being discussed, which moved Poland closer to the end of the Communist monopoly of power, the Moscow leadership once again emphasized its "no" to a military intervention. As Anatoly Dobrynin, the long-standing Soviet ambassador to Washington has reported: "The Politburo decided almost unanimously against it. Brezhnev declared, ‘Poland is not Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan’. In a surprising argument from Suslov as the keeper of the party’s ideology, even he said it would be preferable to admit a few social democrats into Poland’s communist government than to use our troops. In short, the generals wanted to go, but the politicians did not." 2


The Politburo reaffirmed this position when in late October Jaruzelski, who had meanwhile taken over the offices of prime minister and, since mid-October, party leader, had asked for "military assistance from the fraternal countries," should the Polish security forces not be able to handle Solidarity themselves. 3 Although doubtful if Jaruzelski would even apply martial law, the members of the special commission dealing with Poland unanimously declared in the Politburo meeting of 10 December 1981, that, in the words of Gromyko, "there can be no consideration at all of sending in troops." "If troops will be introduced", Suslov said, "that will mean a catastrophe." 4


Andropov put it even more bluntly: "We can’t risk such a step. [...] That is the proper position, and we must adhere to it until the end. I don’t know how things will turn out in Poland, but even if Poland falls under the control of ‘Solidarity,’ that is the way it will be. And if the capitalist countries pounce on the Soviet Union, and you know they have already reached agreement on a variety of economic and political sanctions that will be very burdensome for us. We must be concerned above all with our own country and about the strengthening of the Soviet Union. That is our main line."


Jaruzelski’s urgent demand for troops was denied. The Warsaw Pact did not even supply him with an open statement legitimizing the actions of the Polish army against Solidarity by considering them in the common interest. Neither did the Politburo send representatives for which Jaruzelski had hoped to sanction the actions against the democratic movement. "You are distancing yourself from us," Jaruzelski complained to Soviet Ambassador Boris Aristov who gave him the bad news on 10 December. "This is terrible news for us!! A year-and-a-half of chattering about the sending of troops went on – now everything has disappeared." What did this make him look like? 5


There is no evidence that the Brezhnev team would have reconsidered its position had Jaruzelski not taken the step to declare martial law (as Moscow had feared) or if the Polish security forces had not been able to handle the people’s resistance (as Jaruzelski had feared). For Moscow, the alternative was exactly what Brezhnev had told Jaruzelski: "If you fail to take tough measures right away against the counterrevolution, you will lose the only opportunity you still have." 6 The men surrounding Brezhnev had not only realized that it was not possible to defend Socialism by military means. They had also realized that it was far more important to cooperate with the West than to maintain their Empire. Accordingly, Moscow no longer vouched for the rule of the party apparatus of its Allies.


Ultimately, you can see here the erosion of the so-called "Breshnev doctrine". The "common concerns of the Socialist and Workers’ Parties" mentioned there did not mean anything but the continuation of power of rule of the party bureaucracies, of the apparatus and the apparatchiks; and the Warsaw Pact proved to be a form of reciprocal reinsure club of this ruling elite. Yet, the experience of the Polish Crisis showed that this reinsurance club did not work any longer. It did not work any longer because détente had advanced the difference in interest of the leadership elites of the Warsaw Pact. He who wanted to rescue "Socialism" in his country had to do it all by himself.


Prof. Dr Wilfried Loth
Historisches Institut der Universität Duisburg-Essen

* For archival evidence on this statement see my "Moscow, Prague and Warsaw: Overcoming the Brezhnev Doctrine", in Cold War History , Vol. 1, No. 2 (January 2001), pp. 103-118.

1 Translated from the minutes of the conversation in Michael Kubina and Manfred Wilke (eds.), "Hart und kompromißlos durchgreifen," in Die SED contra Polen, 1980-81, Berlin 1995, pp. 270-91 at p. 283.

2 Anatoly Dobrynin , In Confidence. Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents , New York 1995, p. 500.

3 As recorded in the minutes of the CPSU-Politburo meeting of October 29, 1981; see Vojtech Mastny, The Soviet Non-Invasion of Poland in 1980/81 and the End of the Cold War, Cold War International History Project Working Paper 23, 1998, p. 28.

4 Parts of the minutes in Cold War International History Project Bulletin , No 5, spring 1995, pp. 121, 134-137.

5 Entry in the note book of Kulikov’s colleague Victor Anoshkin, presented at the Eye-Witness Conference of November 8 – 10, 1997, in Jachranka, In Cold War International History Project Bulletin , No. 11, Winter 1998, pp. 17-31, here pp. 18f.

6 Annex to the Politburo minutes of November 21, 1981, quoted by Mark Kramer, "Poland 1980-1981. Soviet Policy During the Polish Crisis," in: Cold War International History Project Bulletin , No 5, Spring 1995, pp. 1, 116-126, at p. 119.

Lizenzhinweis: Dieser Beitrag unterliegt der Creative-Commons-Lizenz Namensnennung-Keine kommerzielle Nutzung-Keine Bearbeitung (CC-BY-NC-ND), darf also unter diesen Bedingungen elektronisch benutzt, übermittelt, ausgedruckt und zum Download bereitgestellt werden. Den Text der Lizenz erreichen Sie hier: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/de

PSJ Metadata
Wilfried Loth
The Soviet Non-intervention in Poland, 1980/81
Neuere Zeitgeschichte (1945-heute)
Polen, UdSSR und GUS
Militär- und Kriegsgeschichte, Politikgeschichte
20. Jh.
4046496-9 4077548-3 4165706-8 4401075-8
Polen (4046496-9), Sowjetunion (4077548-3), Kriegsrecht Völkerrecht (4165706-8), Nichteinmischung (4401075-8)
PDF document loth_intervention.doc.pdf — PDF document, 274 KB
W. Loth, The Soviet Non-intervention in Poland, 1980/81
In: Der Kriegszustand in Polen 1981 – sowjetische Zurückhaltung aus Zwang oder Einsicht? Hrsg. von Jens Boysen (7. Joachim-Lelewel-Gespräch, 13. März 2012, DHI Warschau) / Stan wojenny w Polsce 1981 – radziecka powściągliwość z przymusu, czy z rozsądku? Pod redakcją Jensa Boysena. (7. Debata Lelewelowska, 13 marca 2012 r., NIH w Warszawie)
URL: https://prae.perspectivia.net/publikationen/lelewel-gespraeche/6-2012/loth_intervention
Veröffentlicht am: 26.07.2013 16:20
Zugriff vom: 22.01.2020 18:19
abgelegt unter: