Charting Russia's role in Poland's path to NATO

By On September 18, 2018

Charting Russia's role in Poland's path to NATO

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Europe

Charting Russia's role in Poland's path to NATO

For Poles, it had been a long time coming: after 48 years of occupation, the last Soviet soldier finally left Poland. The withdrawal of troops 25 years ago paved the way for Eastern European countries to join NATO.

Northern Group of Soviet Forces on exercise in Poland

Septem ber 17, 1993, was a highlight in the political career of former Polish President Lech Walesa. Soviet soldiers, who had been stationed there since 1945 and considered a symbol of Communist oppression, were about to leave.

The last remaining officers had departed their headquarters in Legnitz the day before. Now General Leonid Kovalev officially informed the Polish head of state in the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw that the troop withdrawal was complete.

The end of the occupation

The date is imbued with historical symbolism in Poland. Exactly 54 years earlier, on 17 September 1939, shortly after the German invasion of Poland, the Soviets marched into the eastern regions of Poland and became the second occupier of the country. Walesa described the date as "painful and calamitous."

"Today marks the end of a certain epoch in our common history. Historical justice has been done. There are no more foreign troops on Polish territory," Walesa announced in a landmark address.

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  • Mikhail Kalashnikov posing with his creation (picture alliance/dpa/S.Thomas )

    The Soviet Union is dead, but its weapons live on

    Seven decades of Kalashnikov

    The 30-round AK 47 is arguably the most recognizable firearm in the world. The Soviet engineer Mikhail Kalashnikov (pictured above in 2002) created the automatic rifle after World War II. It quickly earned a reputation for being cheap and reliable, with various armies, guerilla groups and street gangs all using the weapon to this day.

  • A close-up of the Makarov pistol (Imageo)

    The Soviet Union is dead, but its weapons live on

    Makarov goes to space

    The 9mm Makarov pistol entered service in 1951 as a staple sidearm for the Soviet army, police and Spetsnaz special forces. Soviet cosmonauts even took the weapon to space as a part of a special survival kit, which was provided to them in case they become stranded upon landing back on Earth.

  • MiG-29 during a demonstration flight (picture-alliance/dpa/L. Marina)

    The Soviet Union is dead, but its weapons live on

    MiG-29 still flying high

    The Mikoyan MiG-29 first entered production in the early 1980s, and was praised as a highly maneuverable and agile dogfighter. The original model has since been upstaged by both NATO fighters and its more expensive brother Sukhoi, but its variants are still deployed in combat. T he Russian air force uses MiG-29s to target the so-called "Islamic State" forces in Syria.

  • Katyushas on display in the Russian city of Saratov (picture-alliance/dpa/H.Brix)

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    Blast from the past

    The Red Army used Katyushas to devastating effect against German soldiers in World War II. The multiple rocket launchers were attached to army trucks, making them cheap and highly mobile. Its distinctive whine and appearance reminded the German soldiers of a church organ, prompting a nickname "Stalinorgel" or "Stalin's organ."

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    S-300 and its descendants

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    Dragunov sniper rifle

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Poland under Soviet control

Troops had been stationed in Poland since the end of the World War II when the country fell under the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

In June 1945 there were about 300,000 soldiers in the country. Their task was to secure the control of Poland by the provisional communist government. Soviet officers were appointed to key positions in the Defense Ministry and became commanders in the Polish army.

It was not until 1956 that a formal agreement was signed between the two states that capped the number of Soviet soldiers in Poland at 66,000. The military presence primarily laid down a political marker, drawing up the Iron Curtain and the division of Europe into East and West.

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Commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland

A deep wound: Poland commemorates the Soviet invasion

Traces of the Soviet era

When communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1989, Moscow gradually reduced troop numbers in Poland. According to Andrzej Friszke, a historian at the Polish Academy of Sciences, the so-called August Coup of 1991 and the subsequent power struggle in the Kremlin accelerated the withdrawal of troops from Poland.

A bilateral agreement was signed in October 1991. "It was connected with the reorientation of the Russian political sphere, with the departure from a politics of intimidation and imperialism," explained the historian.

From 1991 to 1993, around 56,000 Soviet soldiers, 7,500 civilian personnel and 40,000 members of military families left Poland. And with them, an entire military infrastructure was dismantled: 600 tanks, 200 planes, 90,000 tons of ammunition and tactical missiles for nuclear weapons were transported to Russia.

The Soviet military had occupied 70,000 hectares in Poland, mostly in the western regions of the country. Some of this land was left with lasting environmental damage for which Poland demanded compensation but never received.

Today, Russian cemeteries and Red Army statues continue to remind people of the Soviet occupation in many places across Poland. In recent years, however, many monuments have been removed. The Soviets are considered occupiers by the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) government, but also by many Poles.

Soviet Soldiers in Poland

Soviet Soldiers in Poland

A banquet with Boris Yeltsin

The withdrawal of troops changed the geopolitical situation and allowed Polish politicians to expand their horizons and seek alliances with Western Europe.

During t he final phase of the withdrawal, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Warsaw. Polish President Walesa took the opportunity to tell Yeltsin about his vision of Poland becoming a member of NATO. That evening, the two heads of state engaged in long talks over a banquet that went well into the night.

The outcome surprised many observers the next day: Yeltsin's final communique expressed an understanding for Poland's NATO ambitions. But most surprised of all were the Russian president's staff, who forced him to retract his Warsaw promise in writing after he returned home.

Polish President Lech Walesa shakes hands with Russian President Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin was forced to backtrack after promising Walesa Poland could join NATO

Paving the way for NATO

However, Ye ltsin still "helped Poland on its path to NATO," according to Friszke. The initial statement, despite its following revocation, encouraged Poland and other Eastern European countries to forge ambitious NATO plans.

None of this would have been possible in the presence of the Russian military. Friszke sees the withdrawal as a defining moment in history for Poland.

"As long as the troops were stationed in Poland, it was always possible for Moscow to exert pressure. With Russian soldiers still on their territory, Polandwould have had no path towards the West."

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    < p>Seven bronze sculptures stand on a white stairway at the foot of the Prague Petřin Hill. Inaugurated in 2002, the memorial was originated by sculptor and former political prisoner Olbram Zoulbek. In the inscription of the pedestal it is not only dedicated to those, "imprisoned or executed but also for all those whose life was ruined by totalitarian despotism."

  • Stasiopfer-Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen (picture alliance/dpa/P. Zinken)

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    Germany: Hohenschönhausen Memorial

    More than 11,000 people were imprisoned between 1951 and 1989 in the remand center of the GDR secret police (Stasi). Previously the grounds, in the Berlin neighborhood of Hohenschönhausen, were used by the Soviet occupying power as a special camp for alleged regime opponents . From there, the prisoners were transported to the Nazi-built concentration camp Sachsenhausen.

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    Romania: Remembrance of the resistance

    Since 2016, this 20-meter-high memorial made up of three wings by the sculptor Mihai Buculei has stood on the pedestal of a torn-down Lenin statue in Bucharest. It is situated in front of one of the most important buildings from the Stalin era, at Free Press Square. The initiative was the idea of the Association of Former Political Prisoners.

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    In Tirana, the first memorial after the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes was opened in 2017. During the Nazi era, the German occupiers had used the building as a prison. After the Communists came to power in 1945, people were tortured and killed here. Later the secret police used the "House of Leaves," which got its name because of the climbing plants on the exterior of the building.

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    Georgia: Museum of Soviet Occupation

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    Latvia: The Freedom Memorial

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    Mongolia: Victims of political repression

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    USA: The victims of Katyn

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    Author: Marcel Fürstenau


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  • Date 17.09.2018
  • Author Monika Sieradzka
  • Related Subjects Poland
  • Keywords Poland, Soviet Union, Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin, Iron Curtain, troop withdrawal
  • Feedback: Send us your feedback.
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink https://p.dw.com/p/352fG

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  • Date 17.09.2018
  • Author Monika Sieradzka
  • Related Subjects Poland
  • Keywords Poland, Soviet Union, Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin, Iron Curtain, troop withdrawal
  • Send us your feedback.
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink https://p.dw.com/p/352fG
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