NATO thwarted a Russian invasion in 1980. Could its game plan work today?
With some 100,000 soldiers, heavy armored vehicles, attack aircraft, missiles and other offensive capabilities stationed along Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, Russia has positioned itself for another invasion of its neighbor.
As US President Joe Biden grapples with this crisis, his national security team should look to history for clues as to how to deter the Kremlin from attacking a non-NATO member in its Sphere of Influence: In the late 1980s, President Jimmy Carter and his national security team stopped an impending invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union.
Earlier that year, the opposition Solidarity movement had gained significant momentum, driven by popular resentment of the Soviet occupation, an economy in deep crisis and the charismatic leadership of trade union activist Lech WaÅÄsa. . Moscow feared that it would lose political control over Poland and that unrest would quickly spread to the rest of the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact, so it mounted a large military build-up.
Compared to Ukraine today, Poland’s situation was even more discouraging: it was not bordered by any NATO country, it was surrounded by Eastern Bloc countries and the Union. Soviet had two divisions stationed on its territory. In early December, US intelligence reported that the Soviets had decided to invade and that an attack could occur immediately.
“The movement is complete on almost all fronts surrounding Poland … the moving convoys, divisions, regiments and communications are on an advanced state of alert,” noted Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser ( and my father) in his notes, which were later published. âLogistical support units and even hospital facilities have been prepared. Airborne equipment was loaded onto Soviet aircraft for the deployment of airborne forces. In short, the preparations are massive.
To deter this potential attack, Carter and his national security team strategized around the following objectives: denying the Soviet Union the advantage of surprise; calm the situation by convincing both the Polish government and Solidarity to avoid provoking each other and Moscow, while encouraging them both to resist in the event of an invasion; and deter the Kremlin from invading through international pressure and communicating the costs of aggression.
A united front
The Carter administration used both open and secret channels to alert the Solidarity leadership and the Polish government. Taking advantage of his Polish connections, Warsaw-born Brzezinski contacted leaders of the movement directly and even Pope John Paul II, a Polish-born. The Pope then amplified these warnings in deep networks of the Catholic Church in Poland. The leaders of Solidarnosc took measures to protect themselves but also closed factories and mines, a passive signal to the Soviet leaders of their willingness to resist an invasion.
Meanwhile, the White House informed and mobilized support from NATO allies and beyond. Carter has engaged his counterparts in Germany, France, UK, Canada, Japan and Australia, among others.
This paved the way for a meeting of NATO defense and foreign ministers in mid-December, characterized by unusual, if not unprecedented, Allied unity and determination. Defense ministers held their meeting as the first of four US surveillance planes arrived in Germany to begin on-the-horizon surveillance of Warsaw Pact forces, making it clear that NATO would strengthen its military beyond its existing plans if Poland were invaded.
Foreign ministers, meanwhile, reviewed a set of firm economic and diplomatic sanctions that were provided to the press. They included:
- end all large-scale economic projects, including a new gas pipeline connecting Siberia and Western Europe;
- suspend economic credits to the Soviet Union and Poland;
- the imposition of a full embargo on the Soviet Union;
- cease all shipments of machinery and electronic equipment;
- impose a total trade boycott;
- ban Soviet ships from western ports;
- suspend arms control talks;
- recall of allied ambassadors from Moscow;
- and the reduction of political and cultural / social contacts with the Soviet Union.
The official statement stated bluntly that detente “could not survive if the Soviet Union again violated the basic rights of any state to territorial integrity and independence.” Poland should be free to decide its own future. This statement was reinforced by US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, while France and Germany affirmed their willingness to sever economic ties with Moscow.
To bolster these economic threats, Brzezinski coordinated with Lane Kirkland, the powerful and staunchly anti-Communist leader of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), who led the international labor movement’s preparation for ‘a global boycott of the shipping of goods to and from the Soviet Union.
The Carter administration then let Moscow know (both directly and through intentional press leaks) that an invasion of Poland would precipitate unrest elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, undermine Moscow’s party ties. Communists of Western Europe and the nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, and would lead to a further intensification of US-China military cooperation.
The credibility of these signals was bolstered by NATO’s significant position of strength along its eastern border: more than twenty Allied divisions were stationed along the Iron Curtain, and many more were ready to pour in as reinforcements. . The more than three hundred thousand American troops deployed in Europe were a decisive part of this advanced defense.
Meanwhile, the United States struggled to weaken the Soviets in Afghanistan, as Carter took Moscow by surprise with increased financial and material assistance, including weapons, to the Afghan mujahedin in 1980. While While much of the world believed Iran was taking US diplomats hostage at the time, a sign of US weakness, Moscow realized it was suffering from US actions in Afghanistan.
A model for today?
The Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland was ultimately deterred by Carter’s exercise of diplomacy, the threat of crippling economic sanctions, the Alliance’s robust position of strength, and the recognition in Moscow Carter had launched. an assertive strategy against Soviet expansionism.
As a result, the crisis began to fade in late December and later became one of Carter’s unrecognized successes – one executed by a lame administration, as he lost the November election to Ronald Reagan.
Today, Biden and his own national security team should compare their current context, approach, and next steps to deter Russian aggression to Carter’s handling of the 1980 crisis.
There are key differences: on the one hand, the position of NATO forces along its eastern border is now considerably more diluted than it was during the Cold War. And perhaps more importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t help but notice that many of the top Biden officials were senior Obama administration officials when the US government discouraged Ukraine from resisting. to the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Last April, the accumulation of Moscow’s troops along the Ukrainian border resulted in only a discreet response from the Alliance, including including the United States.
Afghanistan also resonates very differently in the current crisis. Rather than emphasizing the unity of the Alliance and American might, the August withdrawal sowed divisions and raised questions, including in Moscow, about American military resolve.
While the Biden administration shares intelligence and coordinates with Ukraine and its allies, it has not publicly articulated the diplomatic and economic sanctions envisaged if Russia invades Ukraine again. NATO has also failed to significantly strengthen its military position along its eastern border. As a result, the United States and its NATO allies have yet to signal their readiness to undertake a significant military and economic confrontation with Moscow.
Putin was in the fifth year of his KGB career when Moscow contemplated an invasion of Poland. One should assume that the resolve of the United States and the Allies in this eventuality is among the benchmarks he uses to gauge the West’s resolve as it contemplates its next move on Ukraine. As the prospects for another Russian invasion increase, NATO must now match the level of resolve it has exercised in the much more difficult event it faced in 1980.
Ian Brzezinski is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and served as US Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy.
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