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The Polish political crisis of 1980-1981, associated with the emergence of the Solidarity mass movement in Poland, challenged the Soviet control over the satellite countries of the Eastern Bloc. For the first time however, Kremlin abstained from military intervention unlike on previous occasions such as the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and instead forced the Polish leadership under General Wojciech Jaruzelski to impose martial law to crush the opposition on their own.


Initial reaction

Contrary to the interpretations of the US intelligence, no preparations were underway for even a minimal Soviet support force at the time martial law was imposed according to the declassified Soviet archives.[1] On August 25 a special commission was created in Moscow to formulate policy towards the latest developments in Poland. It was headed by senior Communist Party ideologist Mikhail Suslov and included: KGB chairman Yury Andropov, foreign minister Andrei Gromyko and defense minister Dmitry Ustinov. They were somewhat reluctant to resort to military countermeasures in Poland, and wary of the danger of repetition of the Polish 1970 protests and of the troubles with the ongoing Soviet war in Afghanistan. However, the East German and Czechoslovak communist leaders, Erich Honecker and Gustáv Husák, were enthusiastic about forced suppression of Solidarity along the lines of the previous crackdowns. The aging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev agreed with Honecker and Husák, leaning towards intervention. The planned joint Soviet, East German and Czechoslovak attack under the pretext of the Warsaw Pact military exercise 'Soyuz-80' was set to start on December 8, 1980.[2]

Deeply concerned Polish communist leaders, who initially demonstrated leniency, slowly began to consider forced suppression of the popular movement on their own as a probable option. On October 22 Polish defense minister Jaruzelski launched secret planning for the imposition of martial law.[2]

The United States intelligence was well aware of the Warsaw Pact plans. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski compelled President Jimmy Carter to disclose the Warsaw Pact military build-up publicly and repeatedly warn the Soviet Union of the gravest consequences of its actions.[2][3]

On December 5 at the insistence of Honecker, the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries held a summit in Moscow. The Polish leader, first secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party Stanisław Kania, promised to do his best to uproot the opposition by domestic means. Brezhnev didn't insist on armed intervention, and during subsequent talks Kania managed to persuade him that a foreign intervention would inevitably lead to a full-scale national uprising. The invasion was thus postponed indefinitely to allow the Polish leadership to suppress the opposition on their own.[2]

Final decision

However, the Kremlin was discontent with how leniently this suppression proceeded, and on October 18, 1981, forced the Polish United Workers' Party to replace Kania with Jaruzelski. The latter promised to impose martial law, but demanded backing his action by a promise of Warsaw Pact military intervention if he failed to control the situation. On October 29, Jaruzelski's demands were discussed at a session of the Soviet Politburo, where Andopov confirmed the consensus that no Soviet troops would be sent to Poland.[2][4]

At the 14th annual meeting of the Committee of Ministers of Defense of the Warsaw Pact, which took place in Moscow on December 1-4, Jaruzelski's deputy Florian Siwicki on behalf of the former proposed to issue a bluffing strong statement pledging support of the Warsaw Pact armed forces to the Polish authorities in order to give a "cold shower for the counterrevolution" and to deny western claims that Jaruzelski didn't have backing of his allies. The Soviet, East German, Czechoslovak and Bulgarian ministers, Dmitry Ustinov, Heinz Hoffmann, Martin Dzúr and Dobri Dzhurov, supported the proposal. However, it failed to pass because Romanian minister Constantin Olteanu, who was not aware that the plans for invasion had already been discarded and took the threat for real, vetoed the draft after consultations with Ceauşescu, and his Hungarian counterpart Lajos Czinege was not ready to agree unless everyone else did.[2][5][6]

At the Politburo meeting of December 10, 1981, the Soviet leadership was outraged to learn that Jaruzelski was still making his crackdown on Solidarity conditional on a promise of a Soviet military intervention if anything went wrong. The Politburo firmly and unanimously rejected the demand for military backing. Andropov, one of the most influential figures in the Politburo, who would become the Soviet leader in less than a year, wary of the threat of Western political and economic sanctions, made it clear to his fellow Politburo members that he was ready to reconcile himself to the possible loss of the Soviet control over Poland to Solidarity, however unpleasant it might be, if the Soviet communications with East Germany via Poland continued uninterrupted:

We can't risk such a step. We do not intend to introduce troops into Poland. 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's 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. <...> As concerns the lines of communication between the Soviet Union and the GDR that run through Poland, we of course must do something to ensure that they are safeguarded.[4][7]

Chief ideologist Suslov supported him, considering the possibility of invasion after the Soviet support of détente in the 1970s as a severe blow to the Soviet international standing.[2][4][7] The Brezhnev Doctrine was effectively dead.[8]

Andropov and Jaruzelski

Martial law

After unsuccessfully begging Warsaw Pact commander-in-chief Viktor Kulikov and Soviet ambassador Boris Aristov for military assistance once again, on December 13, 1981, Jaruzelski finally proclaimed martial law. To justify the emergency measures, Jaruzelski was still playing on the public fear of Soviet invasion. However, there was no significant resistance to the martial law and any foreign military backing proved unnecessary. Ever since Jaruzelski himself has denied that he invited Soviet troops, insisting that, on the contrary, the martial law was aimed at prevention of a Soviet military intervention.[2]

1997 Jachranka conference

In November 1997 a conference was held in Jachranka on the Soviet role in the Polish crisis of 1980-1981, where Solidarity, Polish communist, Soviet and American participants of the events, including Jaruzelski, Kania, Siwicki, Kulikov and Brzezinski, took part. Jaruzelski and Siwicki maintained that the Soviets had been preparing for invasion all the time, Kania and Brzezinski opined that the plans for invasion had been discarded by the second half of 1981 and Kulikov denied the existence of any plans to intervene even in 1980.[9][3]


  1. ^ Douglas J. MacEachin, Soviet military activity near the Polish border in "US Intelligence and the Polish Crisis 1980-1981" (section Bloc-Country Archives Open), CSI Publications, 2007
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Vojtech Mastny. The Soviet Non-Invasion of Poland in 1980/81 and the End of the Cold War, Working Paper No. 23, Cold War International History Project, Washington, D.C., September 1998, also published in Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Mar., 1999), pp. 189-211.
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b c Soviet deliberations during the Polish Crisis, 1980-1981. Edited, translated, annotated, and introduced by Mark Kramer. Special Working Paper No. 1, Cold War International History Project, Washington, D.C., April 1999.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b Transcript of the Politburo session of December 10, 1981 (in Russian)
  8. ^ Wilfried Loth. Moscow, Prague and Warsaw: Overcoming the Brezhnev Doctrine. Cold War History 1, no. 2 (2001): 103-118.
  9. ^ Jerzy Holzer. Martial Law Evaluated by Historians and Generals at Jachranka


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