Established on 14 May 1955, The Warsaw Treaty Organisation (also known as the Warsaw Pact) was a political and military alliance between the Soviet Union and several Central and Eastern European countries.
The Warsaw Pact was effectively devised to counterbalance North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a security alliance between the United States, Canada and 10 Western European countries that was established with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949.
By joining the Warsaw Pact, its members granted the Soviet Union military access to their territories and attached themselves to a shared military command. Ultimately, the pact granted Moscow a stronger hold over the dominions of the USSR in Central and Eastern Europe.
Here’s the story of the Warsaw Pact.
A counterbalance to NATO
By 1955, treaties already existed between the USSR and neighbouring Eastern European countries, and the Soviets already exerted political and military dominance over the region. As such, it could be argued that the establishment of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation was superfluous. But the Warsaw Pact was a response to a very particular set of geopolitical circumstances, specifically the admission of a remilitarised West Germany into NATO on 23 October 1954.
In fact, prior to West Germany’s admission into NATO, the USSR had sought a security pact with Western European powers and even made a play to join NATO. All such attempts were rebuffed.
As the treaty itself states, the Warsaw Pact was drawn up in response to a “new military alignment in the shape of ‘Western European Union’, with the participation of a remilitarised Western Germany and the integration of the latter in the North-Atlantic bloc, which increased the danger of another war and constitutes a threat to the national security of the peaceable states.”
De facto Soviet control
The pact’s signatories were the Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). While the pact was billed as a collective security alliance, much like NATO, in practice it reflected the USSR’s regional dominance. Soviet geostrategic and ideological interests typically overrode genuinely collective decision making and the pact became a tool to control dissent in the Eastern Bloc.
The United States is sometimes held up as NATO’s hegemonic leader but, realistically, any comparison with the role the Soviet Union played in the Warsaw Treaty Organisation is wide of the mark. While all NATO decisions require a unanimous consensus, the Soviet Union was ultimately the Warsaw Pact’s only decision-maker.
The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 was an inevitable consequence of the institutional collapse of the Communist leadership in the USSR and throughout Eastern Europe. A chain of events, including the reunification of Germany and the overthrowing of Communist governments in Albania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union itself, collapsed the edifice of Soviet control in the region. The Cold War was effectively over and so was the Warsaw Pact.
The Warsaw Pact’s modern legacy
Since 1990, the year of Germany’s reunification, NATO’s intergovernmental alliance has grown from 16 to 30 countries, including numerous former Eastern Bloc states, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Albania.
It’s perhaps telling that NATO’s expansion east came in the wake of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact on 1 July 1991, a moment that signalled the end of the Soviet Union’s hold over Eastern Europe. Indeed, by the end of that year, the Soviet Union was no more.
After the dissolution of the USSR and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s perceived expansion began to be viewed with suspicion by Russia. In the 20th century, the potential enrolment of former Soviet states like Ukraine into NATO proved particularly troubling for some Russian powerholders, including Vladimir Putin.
In the months preceding the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin was unequivocal in his insistence that Ukraine, a former member state of the Soviet Union, must not join NATO. He insisted that NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe equated to an imperialist land grab in a region that was previously united (under effective Soviet control) by the Warsaw Pact.