Prof. Marek KORNAT: Why did Russian troops leave Poland as late as in 1993, not in 1989?

Why did Russian troops leave Poland as late as in 1993, not in 1989?

Photo of Prof. Marek KORNAT

Prof. Marek KORNAT

Historian, Sovietologist, essayist, professor of human sciences


other articles by this author

As long as Russian troops stationed on the Polish territory, Poland was a country aspiring to independence, but not yet independent, says prof. Marek KORNAT

.In October 1991, in Moscow, the Polish-Soviet agreement was signed with respect to withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland. It was agreed at the time that all Russian military were to leave the country by the last quarter of 1993. The process ended on 18 September 1993, when the last Russian soldier stationing over the Vistula within the framework of the Northern Group of Forces left Poland.

Soviet troops in Poland

.The beginning of soviet troops’ presence in Poland dates to 17 September 1939, the date of USSR’s invasion of the Second Republic of Poland. Germany’s attack onto the USSR in June 1941 pushed the Soviets to the east but, in 1943, they managed to regain the strategic initiative (to be very brief) and re-entered the occupied Poland early in 1944. A dependent country was established, named as the People’s Republic of Poland in 1952, with Soviets remaining on its territory until 1993.

We can speak of three phases of Soviet troops’ presence in Poland: from the Soviet invasion in 1939 until 1956, the period 1956–1989, and the period 1989–1993. Until 1956, the presence of Soviet army in Poland was not regulated – not included in any treaty or other legal commitment, although it was said the Provisional Government of National Unity agreed to this. The “People’s Republic of Poland” had no control over the Soviet troops stationing on its territory (Northern Group of Forces). It was not even clear how many soldiers there were. The troops followed orders from abroad and acted as the principal guarantee for maintaining the status quo in Poland: communist dictatorship and dominance of the USSR. In 1949, the commander of Soviet troops, Konstantin Rokossovsky, became the Marshal of Poland. Soviet officers held crucial commanding functions in the Polish People’s Army. They were present at the General Staff, and commanded grand units.

The situation changed in the autumn of 1956 when, during his historic trip to the USSR, Władysław Gomułka negotiated a pact that regulated the stationing of Soviet troops in Poland. At the time, the second and the longest phase of Soviet army’s presence in Poland began, lasting until 1989. It is assumed that, in its peak, the forces totalled approximately 300,000 soldiers.

The third phase was the period when Poland detached from the USSR and started building its independent state. After 1989, the Soviet army (formally Russian from December 1991) stationing on the territory of Poland was a relic of the past international system, an unwanted “souvenir” of the Warsaw Pact. At the time, it had lost its former potential to influence the situation in the country but did not leave its territory until September 1993. According to the official Soviet data, in 1989, over 59,000 soldiers stationed in Poland, with almost 40,000 of their family members.

The stationing of the Soviet army in Poland was driven by several major objectives. The presence of the Northern Group of Forces on the territory was to point to Soviet domination, psychologically paralyse the Polish society, and deprive the authorities of any hope for any greater independence, as well as to make everyone aware that the country’s geopolitical situation could not be changed. The troops also acted as the support for forces stationing in the East Germany that were to sustain the division of Europe and Germany itself.

In the period 1945-1989, no USSR leader decided to use Soviet troops in Poland to fight against the rebelling Poles. The only exception to the rule was in 1956 when, due to growing political tension in Poland, the troops left their bases and marched toward Warsaw, but were not finally used. Gomułka assured the authorities in the USSR and Khrushchev himself that he would not lead Poland out of the Warsaw Pact. Undoubtedly, if a decision were made in the USSR, at any time, regarding military intervention in Poland, the troops stationing on its territory would have been used. This, however, did not happen. I believe that one of the reasons behind that was that the Soviets did not want to risk any retaliation from the West. Invasion of Poland was the most seriously considered in the last quarter of 1980, after the events in August 1980 and establishment of the “Solidarity” Trade Union, but this was prevented at the last moment by the US government who threatened the Soviets with severe sanctions.

The use of Soviet troops on the Polish territory against the Poles was certainly only planned within a broader campaign of the Warsaw Pact forces. The Soviets preferred pacification of protests in Poland with the hands of Polish People’s Army, namely Poles wearing Polish uniforms, but in the Soviet service. Such a tactic was adopted in 1981, when General Jaruzelski was convinced to use own forces, without Soviet participation, which proved successful at the time. Martial law was introduced in Poland. “Solidarity” as a grand social movement was supressed.

Why 1993, not 1989?

.In the context of analysing the presence of Soviet troops in Poland, it is important to answer the question why they left the territory as late as in 1993, not in 1989, immediately after the establishment of a non-communist government, which for many seems equivalent to regaining independence and detachment from the USSR. Under the government of Prime Minister Mazowiecki, Poland stood out for several reasons among the countries of the collapsing Eastern Block. Tadeusz Mazowiecki was a man who believed the “Polish-Soviet alliance” should be preserved. Before he became the prime minister, he had advocated for acknowledgement of the USSR’s strategic interests. He signed an appeal by a group of opponents to the message of the First National Congress of “Solidarity” in Gdansk (summer of 1981) to the working people from Eastern Europe, which was resolved on the initiative of Kornel Morawiecki. When Mazowiecki came to power in autumn of 1989, there were still other communist countries that only experienced systemic changes in the following months. Considering a possibility of Poland’s remaining an enclave in the Eastern Block for some time, Mazowiecki thought that one should not demand withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland so as not to deteriorate the country’s situation. The first foreign guest welcomed by the new prime minister of the People’s Republic of Poland was the head of KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov. It is unclear what arrangements were made during the visit. It is known that Kryuchkov suggested to Tadeusz Mazowiecki that severance of close relationship with the USSR would be too costly for Poland in view of its dependence on Russian resources and the problem of unregulated border with Germany on the Oder and the Lusatian Neisse. The concern about those issues affected Mazowiecki’s approach to the USSR, which was significant regarding the presence of Soviet troops in Poland.

The matter of western border was crucial in this context. In November 1989, the Germans started demolishing the Berlin Wall. Still in the same month, Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced the ten-point plan for German unity. It was pursued, but the issue of Polish-German border was discussed in the spring and summer of 1990 in the formula comprising two German states and four powers (USA, United Kingdom, France, and the USSR), namely “2+4.” The Soviets had a strong vote on that forum. Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government undoubtedly assumed that, in their talks with Gorbachev, they would not speak about the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland so as not to tease the Soviets. The Germans certainly did not intend to start a war against Poland regarding disputable lands, but Chancellor Kohl negotiated with the Poles in such a way so as not to declare anything before the country’s unification, which took place on 3 October 1990. It was only after enforcing the commitments regarding the status quo at the conference “2+4” in Paris that the Germans stood down. Polish -German border treaty was signed (17 November 1990) and ratified by both countries in the last months of 1991. This coincided with the signing of the Polish-Soviet agreement on the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland (October 1991). It was only then that the issue of soviet army withdrawal returned on the right track.

An interesting recall from the period 1989-1990 refers to the operation of censorship which, for unknown reasons, Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government did not abolish right away. Certainly, after the historic election of 4 June 1989, censorship did not actually operate, but it still existed as an office. It did not actually have any power whatsoever except for one matter: the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Poland. Until the spring of 1990, one could not freely speak or write in the Polish media about the number of Soviet soldiers stationing in the country.

The behaviour of Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government with respect to Moscow was supported by his advocates, whose statements – from today’s perspective – seem rather embarrassing. There were even opinions we should not hasten the demands to evacuate the Soviet troops because, as long as they stationed on our territory, the Germans would not take away our western lands. Such a thesis was presented in March 1990 by later ambassador of Poland in Berlin, Janusz Reiter, in his article published in “Gazeta Wyborcza.” Jerzy Giedroyc referred to this as thinking in the spirit of the Targowica Confederation. Similarly – now moving away in time from the matters discussed – an outstanding specialist in Russian culture, Andrzej Drawicz, publicly opposed against Poland’s aspiring to NATO so as not to tease Russia that had its own problems and was not a threat to us. People speaking that way did not realise that Soviet soldiers would not fight for Polish western lands if there was no communism over the Vistula, and there was no Soviet domination. Most Polish politics (particularly those originating from the “Solidarity”) were, however, aware that Soviet troops were to be removed from the country’s territory. After resolving the dispute about the western border, this was only a matter of time. The matter protracted until 1993 because negotiations with the Russians in 1991 were difficult. Russian diplomacy raised various arguments, not only geopolitical, but also related to logistic and economic problems after the collapse of the USSR. They played for time and insisted on extending the process. Finally, the matter was closed on 17 September 1993 when the last Russian soldier left the territory of the Polish state.

The importance of events from the period 1991-1993

.Soviet troops in the years 1989-1991, and post-Soviet after 1991, were generally neutral with respect to the Polish statehood. They had no orders from Moscow to proceed otherwise. After the attempted coup in the USSR in August 1991, aimed at removing Gorbachev from office, the moods at the post-Soviet bases boosted. The portraits of the country’s leader were taken down. If the plan of the coup had succeeded, Poland would have faced a dangerous situation and extreme problems. Nothing points to any possible aid from the West at the time, and the staff of the Polish People’s Army, which prevailed in the post-communist Polish Army, was unable to even think about any opposition against Russia. These were people absolutely convinced of Moscow’s firm power.

The withdrawal of Soviet (Russian) troops from Poland, deferred by four years, was an event of high political and strategic importance, but also symbolic. Undoubtedly, stationing of such forces over the Vistula did not allow for calling Poland a fully independent state. After the breakthrough of 1989, but until the withdrawal of Russian soldiers, Poland was a country aspiring for independence, but not yet independent. The presence of foreign troops prevented even the efforts related to Poland’s membership in NATO. It must be pointed out that there was no major social mobilisation in Poland to enforce the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Indeed, there were manifestations with the “Soviets, go home!” slogan, but they were rather limited. Not all Poles were interested in the subject. Most attention was given to economic matters and the need to handle problems caused by the collapse of the PRL’s economy followed by Balcerowicz’s shock therapy. It is also hard to speak about nationwide enthusiasm upon the exit of Soviet forces from the country. This does not, however, change the fact that the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Poland was a historic event and a breakthrough.

While writing about the process of Soviet troops’ withdrawal from Poland, one must point to particularly important measures of Jan Olszewski’s government that prevented the concept of establishing Polish-Russian joint ventures on the territory of former Soviet military bases. During the negotiations with Poland regarding the Treaty on friendly relations and good-neighbourly cooperation of May 1992, Russian diplomacy proposed that the property of the bases abandoned by the Soviet soldiers should be managed by Polish-Russian joint ventures. Their supervisory bodies would have the appropriate parity for the Poles and the Russians, and the joint ventures would be allegedly used for development of mutual economic relations of both countries. If this were to happen, it would have been in fact Russian special forces taking over the property, and Poland would have no control over that. In the long-term perspective, it would have been a serious threat to Polish sovereignty, particularly after Vladimir Putin coming to power, which occurred seven years after the Russian troops left Poland. Olszewski’s government, however, objected to the Russian proposal and the postulate was deleted at a last moment from the already prepared text of the treaty. It is particularly sad that this resulted in a sudden move by President Wałęsa against Olszewski’s government, which was overthrown on 4 June 1992.

.To conclude, it is worth pointing out that the Soviet troops left the “scorched earth” in the abandoned areas. It is hard to say whether this was ordered or a result of their daily practice because Russian soldiers clearly represented a different, eastern civilisation. While negotiating the agreement on the Soviet army leaving Poland, the Polish party waived any financial claims for damage to facilities leased by the Soviet army, and for the devastation of the natural environment. The related losses were estimated as several hundred million American dollars.

Marek Kornat

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 16/09/2023