Why Did the Warsaw Pact Intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1968 but Not in Poland in 1980?

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Why did the Warsaw Pact intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1968 but not in Poland in 1980? When conducting a comparative analysis there are several arguments that need to be developed in order to come up with a feasible conclusion. Therefore by using a three-fold approach I will be exploring the question of why the Warsaw Pact intervened in Czechoslovakia but not in Poland. One could begin by focusing on the origin of the reforms in both countries. Czechoslovakia adopted a “top down” approach headed from within the Communist Party by the liberal reformist Alexander Dubcek, the First secretary of the party.

This is contrasted with the reforms in Poland as they spurred out of “Solidarity” that consisted of the working class and intelligentsia, a “bottom-up” movement putting forward ideas towards a more democratic regime. The second argument that distinguishes these two cases is the difference in the international situation between the USSR and the West in 1968 and 1980. Finally focusing on the economic condition of the Soviet Union and external effects that influence the capitals finances.

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By analysing all of these factors we can establish why the USSR decided to leave the Polish government in charge of its internal affairs whereas they opted for an intervention in the case of Czechoslovakia. One of the most important differences between the Czechoslovak and Polish case is the field within which the reform movements formed. In Czechoslovakia this occurred within the Communist Party itself, whereas in Poland it rose from the workers and the intelligentsia of “Solidarity”.

The general liberal atmosphere of the 1960s set the stage for Alexander Dubcek – a young member of the communist party with great ideas of liberalising the tough regime. Dubcek was himself too young to have been involved in the purges and so with a clean slate he began to liberalise his country. His reforms were labelled as the “Action Programme” intended to create “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia. This programme focused on the “relaxation of central control over the economy, virtual abolition of censorship, religious reforms and an increase in the independence of parliament”.

With the introduction of these liberal reforms the Soviet Union began to feel that the country was distancing itself from the ideological values of communism, and feared that the liberal reforms would pose a spill over effect onto other Eastern European states bound within the Warsaw Pact. However Dubcek himself was unaware of the building tension, despite several warnings from the Soviet Union; he assumed that due to the cost of an invasion this would be an inefficient strategy for the USSR.

After the easing of censorship several newspapers published “2000 words” by Vaculik, expounding the case for reform and democratisation, with hints there was a danger of invasion by the WTO, this was the final alarm bell for Brezhnev. Fearing that Dubcek would lose control of his country and let it fall out of the Warsaw pact, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia on the 20th August 1968. The Polish situation differed from Czechoslovakia in the sense that reforms were triggered from “below” through the “Solidarity” movement formed by the workers and intelligentsia.

This national liberation movement was sparked as a result of “material grievances and frustrated expectations”. Deriving from the Lenin shipyard strikes in Gdansk 1970, the movement finally proposed “21 demands” to the government. These included basic appeals such as the right to strike, the release of political prisoners, wage increases, religious freedom and an end to censorship. Due to the stagnating economic situation in Poland during that time and the government’s incapability of supressing further strikes, the trade union was legalised in September 1980.

Crampton describes that “the last thing the Polish economy could endure was a disruption of economic activity”. Another factor one could consider as to why the USSR didn’t intervene in Poland was the image of Solidarity itself. Mason emphasises the individuality of the movement. Being the only movement connected with the Catholic Church, it combined the values of “democracy, participation, justice, equality, human dignity and socialism”. Therefore it was the only non-violent movement capable of absorbing so many issues. This shows how the movement never posed a direct threat to the Soviet Union, unlike Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Walesa, Head of the Solidarity movement, constantly emphasised that the trade union only wanted to exert pressure on the ruling bureaucracy, not overthrow it. One could therefore argue that the Soviet Union didn’t feel vulnerable to the proposals of the movement unlike Czechoslovakia in 1968, where Dubcek was planning reforms from within the party and was trying to democratize it from the centre. In order to further analyse what exactly triggered the decisions behind Warsaw Pacts invasion lies within the comparison between the international relationship of the USSR and the West in the years in question.

It is important to focus on the political tension between the western world and Russia. Since the Cold War was based around economic and political differences, the USSR used Czechoslovakia as a basic tool to uphold its international status demonstrating its power and military might. Unlike Poland in 1980, the USSR was not concerned about its friendly image to the outside world, due to the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 and NATOs watchful eye over the Soviet Union, 1968 would be considered a much more dangerous environment for the USSR to seem weak. Alternatively, by 1980, interaction between two super powers had become very tense.

The USSR was reaching a culmination of the political strain and struggle to keep tensions at a minimal. This uneasy environment was heightened by the summer Olympic games being held in Moscow. Thus the USSR was not prepared to stain its image abroad by sending troops into Poland and attracting unwanted attention. The Polish situation can be further explained by examining past events involving Czechoslovakia. The invasion in 1968 sent an “unmistakable signal” through the Soviet Block; it defined how far the USSR was willing to go in order uphold its ideological principles.

This notion fortifies the explanation why in 1981 following the troop movements in Ukraine and the Baltic States, Jaruzelski, fearing revolutionary outcome, crushed the Solidarity movement through the introduction of martial law. This fear of Soviet intervention demonstrated through the case of Czechoslovakia in 1968, ensured that the USSR was able to leave the Polish government in charge of their events. The martial law managed to supress the movement and successfully avoided tarnishing relations with Russia.

Some observers such as Hans Morgenthau conclude that the invasion in 1968 was carried out to prevent Czechoslovakia from shifting its alliance closer to West Germany. This shows that Czechoslovakia has never had to choose between independence and alignment, but between alignment with Russia and with Germany. Crampton also mentions this fear of western expansionism, as Czechoslovakia was the only state with boarders of both FGR and USSR, he describes the country as being “poised like a dagger aimed at the heart of the Soviet Union”.

Thus this is another reason that could justify why Poland was not invaded in 1980 since the threat of the western vacuum was much greater in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The last issue to consider is the economic situation within the USSR that could possibly have affected the decision making process of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Brezhnev in his earlier years set about introducing major policy reforms. The introduction of the détente that opened up the bloc of economic contacts with the West definitely had positive financial effects on the USSR.

This meant that in 1968, when the question of Czechoslovakia emerged, there were no major economic issues constraining the Soviet Union. This was not the case in 1980, where the annual economic growth rate of the USSR averaged out at 1. 5%. Paired with the mounting debt accumulated during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the USSR had to reconsider investing capital on troops the combat the Polish situation. In conclusion it is questionable whether the USSR would have invaded had Jaruselski not imposed the martial law in 1981.

We can see that Russia cared a great deal about its political image abroad, seeing as in 1968 it was willing to secure its powerful international status by any means possible. In 1980 however, due to the economic stagnation and the need for Western financial support, Russia was very much wary of its international status. Not one individual point can be used conclusively to answer this polemic; undoubtedly it is a combination of the points of origin of the reforms, the USSR’s international image and its economic stagnation.

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Why Did the Warsaw Pact Intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1968 but Not in Poland in 1980?. (2016, Oct 09). Retrieved from


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