Dissolution of the Warsaw Pact Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Warsaw Pact, a Cold War institution, dissolved as the Soviet Union and former communist countries of Eastern Europe turned to the West for security and assistance in hopes of achieving greater prosperity.

Summary of Event

The end of the Soviet era came in 1991, following a cascading series of external and domestic catastrophes that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Prior to the official end of the Soviet Union, the entire system of Eastern European communist satellite nations collapsed and was replaced by independent nations with electoral democracies. The communist satellite system had begun as an outgrowth of the success of Soviet arms in World War II; the Soviet Union’s hegemony was founded on its victory over the invading Wehrmacht, which left the Red Army in complete control of all the territory up to and including the eastern portions of Austria and Germany. However, these territorial gains were made at an unspeakable cost in blood and treasure (as many as thirty million killed), and the trauma of those losses to the national psyche shaped the Soviet vision of the postwar order and the nation’s strategic objectives. Warsaw Pact;dissolution Cold War;conclusion [kw]Dissolution of the Warsaw Pact (July 1, 1991) [kw]Warsaw Pact, Dissolution of the (July 1, 1991) [kw]Pact, Dissolution of the Warsaw (July 1, 1991) Warsaw Pact;dissolution Cold War;conclusion [g]Europe;July 1, 1991: Dissolution of the Warsaw Pact[08120] [g]Czech Republic;July 1, 1991: Dissolution of the Warsaw Pact[08120] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 1, 1991: Dissolution of the Warsaw Pact[08120] Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Warsaw Pact dissolution Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;Warsaw Pact dissolution Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;Warsaw Pact dissolution

Having been invaded twice through the Polish Corridor within two generations, the Soviet Union determined that no such threat would face future generations, and so the prime postwar goal of Soviet leaders was the construction of a security buffer zone in the countries under their control in Eastern Europe. Further, they felt that a permanently weakened Germany was key to the fulfillment of this strategic objective, and this became the focal point for the breakdown in relations among the members of the wartime “Grand Alliance.” When the United States, France, and Great Britain included the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Soviets responded by formalizing the existing network of bilateral treaties under the rubric of a multilateral agreement, the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, commonly known as the Warsaw Pact.

On one hand, the Soviets sought security, socialist economic development, and political influence on the world stage in the context of a sphere of influence based on wartime successes. On the other hand, the United States and its Western allies wanted containment of Soviet expansionism, open markets, and limitations on the role played by the Soviet Union in global institutions. This fundamental strategic divide, along with the moderating influence of the existence of nuclear arsenals on both sides, shaped the basic nature of the chronic state of conflict known as the Cold War.

The Warsaw Pact’s initial signatories (Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union) agreed to an arrangement whereby Soviet troops would remain within the territories of the allied nations, and all would come to the defense of all in the event of external aggression. The treaty established a unified political and military structure (the Political Consultative Committee and Joint Command) Political Consultative Committee and Joint Command for the coordination of allied military policies and to guarantee consistency with Soviet strategic objectives. Although the treaty functioned primarily as an instrument of control in its early years, the evolution of the system was in the direction of greater autonomy for the satellite nations and something approaching genuine consultation among equal and sovereign states in decision making. By the 1970’s, serious debates were heard concerning the Soviet domination of the alliance, the appropriate apportionment of costs among the allies, and the unequal sharing of risks in the event of war.

The period of détente coincided, paradoxically, with an increasingly offensive alliance policy with respect to NATO, along with the development of assorted intra-alliance coalitions designed to oppose and obstruct Soviet intentions. The 1980’s witnessed the rise of the Polish union movement Solidarity; Solidarity unlike earlier challenges to Kremlin authority, this did not result in direct intervention by Warsaw Pact forces to suppress the movement.

The ascendancy to the leadership of Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 came at a time when cohesion among Warsaw Pact members was at a historic low ebb. Gorbachev’s response was to increase the degree of autonomy available to allied governments, increase the scope for allied input into policy making, and shift the strategic posture of the alliance to a purely defensive one. Meanwhile, Gorbachev engaged in summitry with U.S. president Ronald Reagan at Geneva, Reykjavik, and Moscow, with the purpose of pursuing nuclear disarmament. U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];nuclear disarmament

Gorbachev, along with the young reformers who rose to power along with him, felt that the twin burdens of an arms race and the continual flow of aid and subsidies to the satellite nations of Central and Eastern Europe were incompatible with successful political and economic reform (glasnost and perestroika). Glasnost Perestroika This dual approach—employing diplomacy with the West while reorienting the Soviet economy toward greater satisfaction of consumer needs—meant that it was no longer feasible for the Soviet Union to attempt to assert centralized control over the other Warsaw Pact nations. This set the stage for the events of 1989, the “Autumn of Nations,” throughout eastern Europe.

Lacking the support of the Soviet government, and with Soviet troops remaining in their barracks, Eastern European nations held democratic elections that led to the replacement of communist regimes by liberal democracies. The Berlin Wall was breached, and Germany reunified as a member of NATO; Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Ceauşescu, Nicolae regime in Romania was overthrown by a popular uprising. Gorbachev met with U.S. president George H. W. Bush in December, 1989, at Malta and declared his intention to restructure the Warsaw Pact so as to make it an instrument of diplomatic communications; this essentially ended the Cold War. The new governments in Eastern Europe were no longer beholden to the Soviets, and they felt no need to support their former alliance partner. By the end of 1990, all of the former satellites had announced their withdrawal of support from the alliance, effective no later than June 30, 1991. All that remained was for the final meeting of Warsaw Pact ministers (held in Prague, Czechoslovakia) to conclude with the official announcement of the alliance’s demise on July 1, 1991.

Significance

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact marked a historic shift in Soviet strategic thinking in two respects: First, it indicated that the Soviet leaders recognized that the chief security concerns they faced were internal rather than external; and second, it showed that they understood that national security is more a function of economic capabilities than of the capacity for organized violence. This realization led to a reevaluation of the practice of spending a quarter or more of the nation’s gross domestic product on a system of military alliances that made Soviet security dependent on the armed forces of Bulgaria. Furthermore, the reduction in subsidies to satellite governments implicit in this reevaluation contributed to the eventual demise of communist systems of governance in Eastern Europe. This wave of democratic change could hardly be stopped at the borders of the Soviet Union, and so the abandonment of communist governments abroad accelerated the end of the political system of “Soviet Socialist Republics” at home.

The end of the Warsaw Pact also necessitated a wholesale reorientation of the world system of political, economic, and security institutions that had existed primarily because of the opposition of the two great postwar superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The role of NATO was no longer clear in a unipolar world system, and the task of cultivating military alliances through economic means now fell to the only remaining superpower, the United States. Warsaw Pact;dissolution Cold War;conclusion

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Concise and accessible overview by a leading Cold War scholar. Organized thematically to capture the most significant features without in-depth treatments of places and personalities. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mastny, Vojtech, and Malcolm Byrne, eds. A Cardboard Castle? An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact, 1955-1991. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2005. Work of the Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact presents newly available materials from the Warsaw Pact archives along with commentary. Shows previously unsuspected weaknesses of the alliance as well as its relatively fractious internal relations. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powaski, Ronald E. The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917-1991. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Provides a thorough introductory treatment from the orthodox perspective of the historical backdrop and political contexts surrounding U.S.-Soviet relations. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.

Détente with the Soviet Union

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

United Nations Admits Many New Members

Soviet Troops Withdraw from Czechoslovakia

Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO

Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

NATO and Russia Sign Cooperation Pact

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