The author is writing a biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, said Karl Marx. But sometimes, as Mark Twain rejoined, it simply rhymes. The 1980 amassing of Soviet divisions on Poland’s border threatened to become a lethal escalation of the cold war. America warned Moscow that an invasion of Poland would kill US-Soviet detente — and probably much worse. Today’s Russian build-up on Ukraine’s border, which Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s national security adviser, says could produce an invasion “any day”, is arguably as ominous. But Washington has a useful handbook available.
Almost everyone thought the Soviets would invade Poland. In August 1980, Lech Walesa led a workers’ occupation of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk that expanded into strikes across Poland. A weak government caved in to pressure to permit an independent trade union, Solidarity — an alarming precedent for Moscow and its other satellite regimes. As in Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, Moscow gave the wobbly Polish communists a window in which to crack down or risk an invasion. Warsaw continued to prevaricate.
Much like Russian forces in Belarus today, Moscow reinforced its point by conducting military exercises on Poland’s borders. By December 1980, as many as 45 Soviet divisions, or more than 400,000 troops, were on Poland’s eastern flank. A handful of East German and Czechoslovak divisions were primed on Poland’s western borders. The spectre of a third invasion of an east European satellite in 25 years sowed division in western Europe. In this case, history offers useful lessons.
In May 1980, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, France’s president, went to Warsaw for talks with Leonid Brezhnev, the ailing Soviet leader. Giscard did not warn his allies of his plans. The parallels to Emmanuel Macron’s freelancing are hard to miss. More troubling to Washington was the response of Helmut Schmidt, West Germany’s chancellor, who argued that a Soviet invasion would not endanger detente. Nor would it derail German plans to provide the USSR with loans to build a gas pipeline from Siberia to West Germany. Some things stay the same. Today’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has still not committed to halting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline if Russia invades Ukraine.
But perhaps the closest parallel is between the Biden and Jimmy Carter administrations. At 37 per cent in the polls, and facing a tough election battle with Ronald Reagan, Carter was seen as indecisive and wobbly. Much of this was unfair. But America’s nightly broadcasts were dominated by images of the US hostages in revolutionary Iran, about which Carter could do little. Biden is more than two years from the next election. But his ratings are little better than Carter’s — and his political obituary has become a media staple.
Carter’s trump card was Zbigniew Brzezinski, his hawkish national security adviser, who was a native-born fluent Polish speaker and naturalised American, and who drew on a secret weapon — Ryszard Kuklinski, a senior Polish military official and spy for the CIA. Kuklinski was also a Polish liaison to the Soviet military. His reports were so tightly held that only Carter, Brzezinski and Walter Mondale, the vice-president, were permitted to read them.
Assets this valuable are extremely rare. It would be remarkable were the CIA to have an equivalent mole on Putin’s staff. Biden’s White House has nevertheless leaked apparently strong intelligence about Putin’s plans for a Ukrainian puppet government. Whether Biden is hyping these findings to whip allies into line remains to be seen. With the benefit of hindsight — and the minutes of Soviet politburo meetings — we know plans were drawn up for an invasion of Poland in December 1980. How did Carter stave it off?
This is where history sounds more cacophonous. Unlike Putin, Brezhnev was in a weak position. In December 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. They were suffering losses at the hands of the US-backed mujahideen. Now the Afghanistan shoe is on the other foot. One reason Putin sees Biden as weak is because of the hasty US exit from Afghanistan after 20 fruitless years.
Moreover, China is in a radically different place than in 1980. A year earlier, Carter had normalised US-China relations, which cemented Beijing’s move into the anti-Soviet camp. This was a strategic coup. Brzezinski and Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, even toasted “death to the Soviet Union!” (with Russian vodka, to rub salt into the wound). Today China and Russia are aligned. Last week Xi Jinping and Putin issued a statement opposing Nato’s expansion.
But the similarities are compelling. The USSR stood down from invading Poland in 1980 because it judged the costs could be prohibitive. The US warned of arms sales to China, a total Soviet trade boycott and a grain embargo. The Poles, like Ukrainians today, were bitterly hostile to Moscow. The more Biden can convince Putin he would risk another “bleeding wound” — as Mikhail Gorbachev later described the Soviet war in Afghanistan — the less attractive invading Ukraine will seem. George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For Biden that could read: “Those who study history may be fortunate to repeat it.”