Warsaw Pact: Definition, History, and Significance

Poster showing the 7 primary weapons systems of the Warsaw Pact nations
The Seven Primary Weapons Systems of the Warsaw Pact Nations. Wikimedia Commons

The Warsaw Pact was a mutual defense treaty between the Soviet Union (USSR) and seven Soviet satellite nations of Eastern Europe signed in Warsaw, Poland, on May 14, 1955, and disbanded in 1991. Officially known as the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance,” the alliance was proposed by the Soviet Union to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a similar security alliance between the United States, Canada, and Western European nations established in 1949. The communist nations of the Warsaw Pact were referred to as the Eastern Bloc, while the democratic nations of NATO made up the Western Bloc during the Cold War.

Key Takeaways

  • The Warsaw Pact was a Cold War-era mutual defense treaty signed on May 14, 1955, by the Eastern European nations of the Soviet Union and seven communist Soviet satellite nations of Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the German Democratic Republic.
  • The Soviet Union orchestrated the Warsaw Pact (the Eastern Bloc) to counter the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance between the United States, Canada and Western European nations (the Western Bloc).
  • The Warsaw Pact was terminated on July 1, 1991, at the end of the Cold War.

Warsaw Pact Countries

The original signatories to the Warsaw Pact treaty were the Soviet Union and the Soviet satellite nations of Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the German Democratic Republic.

Seeing the NATO Western Bloc as a security threat, the eight Warsaw Pact nations all pledged to defend any other member nation or nations that came under attack. The member nations also agreed to respect each other’s national sovereignty and political independence by not intervening in each other’s internal affairs. In practice, however, the Soviet Union, due to its political and military dominance in the region, indirectly controlled most of the governments of the seven satellite nations.

Warsaw Pact History

In January 1949, the Soviet Union had formed “Comecon,” the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, an organization for the post-World War II recovery and advancement of the economies of the eight communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe. When West Germany joined NATO on May 6, 1955, the Soviet Union viewed the growing strength of NATO and a freshly rearmed West Germany as a threat to communist control. Just one week later, on May 14, 1955, the Warsaw Pact was established as a mutual military defense complement of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance.

The Soviet Union hoped the Warsaw Pact would help it contain West Germany and allow it to negotiate with NATO on a level playing field of power. In addition, Soviet leaders hoped a unified, multilateral political and military alliance would help them reign in the growing civil unrest in Eastern European countries by strengthening the ties between the Eastern European capitals and Moscow.

The Warsaw Pact During the Cold War

Fortunately, the closest the Warsaw Pact and NATO ever came to actual war against each other during the Cold War years from 1995 to 1991 was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead, Warsaw Pact troops were more commonly used for maintaining communist rule within the Eastern Bloc itself. When Hungary tried to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact in 1956, Soviet troops entered the country and removed the Hungarian People’s Republic government. Soviet troops then put down the nationwide revolution, killing an estimated 2,500 Hungarian citizens in the process.

Photo of Soviet tanks invading Czechoslovakia in 1968
Czech Youth Runs Past Invading Soviet Tank with Bloody Flag. Getty Images

In August 1968, approximately 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops from the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia. The invasion was triggered by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s concerns when the Czechoslovakian government of political reformer Alexander Dubček restored freedom of the press and ended government surveillance of the people. Dubček’s so-called “Prague Spring” of freedom ended after Warsaw Pact troops occupied the country, killing over 100 Czechoslovakian civilians and wounding another 500.

Just one month later, the Soviet Union issued the Brezhnev Doctrine specifically authorizing the use of Warsaw Pact troops—under Soviet command—to intervene in any Eastern Bloc nation considered to pose a threat to Soviet-communist rule.

End of the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact

Between 1968 and 1989, Soviet control over the Warsaw Pact satellite nations slowly eroded. Public discontent had forced many of their communist governments from power. During the 1970s, a period of détente with the United States lowered tensions between the Cold War superpowers.

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria started to fall. Within the Soviet Union itself, the “openness” and “restructuring” political and social reforms of glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev foretold the eventual collapse of the USSR’s communist government 

As the end of the Cold War neared, troops of the once-communist Warsaw Pact satellite states of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary fought alongside U.S.-led forces to liberate Kuwait in the First Gulf War in 1990. 

On July 1, 1991, Czechoslovak President, Vaclav Havel formally declared the Warsaw Pact disbanded after 36 years of military alliance with the Soviet Union. In December 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved to become internationally recognized as Russia. 

Sources