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28 Nov 2005

Poland reveals Warsaw Pact war plans

ISN SECURITY WATCH (28/11/05) - After only four weeks in office, the Polish right-wing government of Lech Kaczynski has provoked Moscow by releasing Warsaw Pact Cold War-era war game plans and agreeing to publish over 1,700 documents that may embarrass former ally Russia.

At a Friday press conference, Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski presented a map from 1979 showing the expected nuclear strikes across Central Europe under one Warsaw Pact planning scenario for armed conflict with NATO forces.

He also signed an order allowing researchers access to Poland’s hitherto secret Warsaw Pact archives, in defiance of a confidentiality agreement among the former alliance members.

The new conservative government in Poland is keen to distance itself from the country’s Communist past and to highlight the dominant role of the Soviet Union within the Warsaw Pact. Sikorski said the publication of the classified archives would help bring an end to the “post-Communist period”.

He also said it would increase Polish citizens’ understanding of their role as an “unwitting ally” in a military pact that would have risked the country’s annihilation in the event of a conflict with NATO.

The plans released on Friday specified the Warsaw Pact’s response to a hypothetical attack by NATO on Eastern Europe using overwhelming conventional forces. Under that scenario, the Warsaw Pact would have responded with large-scale nuclear strikes against Western European targets, including population centers in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark.

Major cities in Germany such as Cologne, Frankfurt, and Munich, as well as the Belgian capital of Brussels, where NATO’s headquarters is situated, would have been annihilated in preparation for a Soviet-led counterattack towards the Rhine and the North Sea, codenamed “Seven Days to the River Rhine”.

The military planners further assumed that NATO would respond with a series of tactical nuclear bombardments of Warsaw Pact reinforcements all along the Vistula River in Poland to prevent them from reaching the frontline. NATO was also expected to drop atomic bombs on Eastern European cities, including Prague and Warsaw.

For Cold War historians, the decision came unexpectedly, as Poland had been one of the most reluctant of all former Warsaw Pact members to grant access to Cold War-era files. Under a February 1991 agreement, the former Eastern European allies pledged not to reveal any military secrets of the defunct alliance unless all members agreed.

“This move is simply sensational,” said Christian Nünlist, a researcher at the Zurich-based Parallel History Project (PHP, www.isn.ethz.ch/php), which collects, analyzes, interprets, and compares declassified Warsaw Pact and NATO documents.

Although the military records of other former Warsaw Pact members, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, or East Germany have since been released, Poland has so far refused to open its military archives to historians, said Nünlist. “We have been asking for these documents since 1999,” he told ISN Security Watch.

The information released on Friday relates to the late 1970s, when US-Soviet détente was in decline, and just before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and unrest in Poland caused tensions to heat up again.

Contemporary NATO assessments show that the Warsaw Pact was outgunned in terms of its nuclear capability at the time, but was making efforts to close the gap. At the same time, NATO had decided to strengthen its conventional forces in order to diversify its options in case of armed conflict while maintaining the deterrent of thermonuclear destruction.

By 1979, the superiority of NATO’s nuclear arsenal - both qualitative and numerical - was mainly based on nuclear artillery delivery systems that were able to fire smaller nuclear warheads at enemy forces on the battlefield with much more precision that the Warsaw Pact’s technology allowed.

The Warsaw Pact was forced to revise its first-strike strategy against the West after NATO had diversified its nuclear delivery systems to include ground-based tactical missile and artillery platforms in addition to its tactical aircraft.

The plans published in Warsaw last week were scenarios for war games, and it is unclear to what extent these reflect actual military preparations for the alliance’s operations in wartime.

Nünlist pointed out that the “Seven Days to the Rhine” scenario stipulated a surprise attack by NATO to which the Warsaw Pact would respond accordingly.

The underlying assumption that NATO would initiate hostilities might reflect political constraints on war-gaming, rather than a sober military threat assessment, said Nünlist. “NATO planning documents also routinely assumed that any conflict would begin with a Warsaw Pact attack and with NATO defensive operations.”.

Among the documents to be released are files on the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, dubbed “Operation Danube”, as well as records of the Communist regime’s domestic security operations against the Polish population in the 1970s and 1980s.

Poland joined NATO in 1999 and has since been one of the US’ staunchest allies within that framework. At the same time, the country’s relations with Russia have deteriorated over a number of contentious issues such as Warsaw’s support for the opposition movements in neighboring Belarus and Ukraine or the planned pipeline from Russia to Germany, which will pass below the Baltic Sea to avoid Polish territory.

(By Christopher Findlay in Zurich)