Jan PARYS: What made the Russian army withdraw from Poland thirty years ago?

What made the Russian army withdraw from Poland thirty years ago?

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Jan PARYS

Politician, sociologist and publicist, Minister of National Defense in 1991-1992.

Ryc. Fabien CLAIREFOND

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Thirty years ago, Russia pulled over 60,000 troops, 200 aircraft, 200 tanks, 700 armoured vehicles and 20 operational-tactical missile launchers out of Poland. Nuclear missiles, including around 300 warheads, were also deployed in Poland.

.Soviet troops entered Poland first in 1939, then again in 1944, when the USSR was campaigning against the Third Reich. Unfortunately, they remained in Polish territory after the Second World War up until September 1993, which meant that Poland was not a truly sovereign country. All these years, the presence of Russian forces within Poland’s borders remained unregulated. Despite an attempt to change this in 1956, the Soviet army acted without regard for any laws or agreements, ignoring the Gomułka-Khrushchev pact. The Poles did not know what was going on in the dozens of Soviet garrisons set up in the country.

Soviet troops – renamed Russian troops after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 – finally left Poland in September 1993. The then-prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, had been reluctant to open talks with the Russians on the issue, and only did so a few weeks before the presidential election, which he lost. The fact that these talks had not begun earlier was one of the reasons for his defeat.

The Polish-Russian negotiations were arduous. I participated in them from the very beginning. The progress was slow, with the Russians playing for time and trying to impose their conditions. Their military representatives, including General Viktor Dubynin, argued that Russian troops should not withdraw from Poland. Others, like Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, were more conciliatory.

One of the Russian proposals was to pull out their troops from Poland but without a fixed date. At the same time, Poland was to sign a treaty, agreeing to a foreign policy that would not target Russia and prohibiting Western countries from using post-Soviet military bases on Polish soil.

The Russians tried to impose on Poland the conditions they once did on Finland, meaning de facto the country’s incomplete sovereignty. Their solutions aimed to rob Poland of its freedom in foreign and security matters. However, Polish Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki opposed Russia’s ideas and even placed constraints on Russian military transports from East Germany through Poland to hasten the ongoing negotiations.

Had it not been for the Western (especially the US) pressure on Russia, I suspect their reluctance to pull out their troops from Polish territory would have been more persistent and difficult to break. The international talks between Washington and Moscow forced the latter to withdraw its armies from the countries of the so-called former socialist camp. The grim legacy of Yalta was to be erased once and for all. With this in mind, the West’s prominent role in the bloodless expulsion of Russian troops from Poland – without a single shot fired – must be recognised.

In the early 1990s, Russia pulled over 60,000 troops, 200 aircraft, 200 tanks, 700 armoured vehicles and 20 operational-tactical missile launchers out of Poland. Nuclear missiles, including around 300 warheads, were also deployed in Poland.

Without a doubt, the mere presence of Russian forces in Polish territories has impacted the country’s political landscape, from its leadership to its policies. The departure of Russian soldiers from Poland had great political and symbolic significance, as it paved the way for the establishment of a sovereign state. It was not until September 1993 that Poland regained the full independence it had lost in 1939. For Europe, it was a chance for continental unity and Poland’s return to the family of Western nations.

The Russians left behind firing ranges full of unexploded ordnance, areas often completely unsuitable for civilian use. As for the housing itself, it turned out to be dilapidated and unrenovated for several decades. Moreover, when the Russian soldiers abandoned them, they took everything they could: windows, doors, fittings, etc., leaving only bare walls and chunks of desert.

.Russia’s economic collapse, defeat in Afghanistan and failure in the arms race with the United States forced it to “shorten the front”. This meant reducing its influence in the world – including in Central and Eastern Europe – and concentrating on internal matters, such as solving economic and political crises. In this context, the Russians leaving Polish territory was as revolutionary as the unification of Germany. I believe that the day Russian army units finally withdrew from Poland was the most significant moment for Europe since the formal end of the Second World War in May 1945.

Jan Parys

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