NATO thwarted a Russian invasion in 1980. Could its playbook work today?

With some one hundred thousand troops, heavy armor, attack aircraft, missiles, and other offensive capabilities parked along Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, Russia has positioned itself for another invasion of its neighbor.

As US President Joe Biden grapples with this crisis, his national security team should look to history for clues about how to deter the Kremlin from attacking a non-NATO member within its sphere of influence: In late 1980 then President Jimmy Carter and his national security team stopped an imminent invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union.

Earlier that year, the Solidarity opposition movement had gained significant momentum, driven by the population’s resentment of Soviet occupation, an economy in deep crisis, and the charismatic leadership of labor activist Lech Wałęsa. Moscow feared it would lose political control of Poland and that the unrest would quickly spread to the rest of the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact, so it mounted a large military build-up.  

Compared to Ukraine today, Poland’s situation was even more daunting: Not bordering any NATO states, it was surrounded by Eastern Bloc countries, and the Soviet Union had two divisions stationed on its territory. By early December, US intelligence was reporting that the Soviets had decided to invade and an attack could occur immediately.

“Movement is comprehensive on almost every front surrounding Poland… convoys in motion, Divisions, regiments, and communications are in an advanced state of alert,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor (and my father) recorded in his notes, which were later published. “Logistical support units and even hospital facilities have been prepared. Airborne equipment has been loaded into Soviet aircraft for the deployment of airborne forces. In brief, the preparations are massive.”

To deter that potential attack, Carter and his national security team shaped a strategy around the following objectives: denying the Soviet Union the advantage of surprise; calming the situation by convincing both the Polish government and Solidarity to avoid provoking one another and Moscow, while also encouraging both to resist in the event of an invasion; and dissuading the Kremlin from invading through international pressure and by communicating the costs of aggression.

A united front

The Carter administration used both overt and covert channels to warn Solidarity’s leadership and the Polish government. Leveraging his Polish connections, the Warsaw-born Brzezinski reached out directly to the movement’s leaders and even to Pope John Paul II, a native Pole. The pope then amplified these warnings throughout the Catholic Church’s deep networks in Poland. Solidarity leaders took steps to protect themselves but also shut down factories and mines—a passive signal to Soviet leaders of their readiness to resist an invasion.

Meanwhile, the White House informed and mobilized the support of allies in NATO and beyond. Carter engaged his counterparts in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Australia, among others.

That set the stage for a mid-December NATO Defense and Foreign Ministers meeting featuring unusual, if not unprecedented, Allied unity and resolve. The defense ministers conducted their meeting as the first of four US surveillance aircraft arrived in Germany to begin over-the-horizon monitoring of Warsaw Pact forces—making clear that NATO would build up its military beyond its existing plans if Poland was invaded.

Foreign ministers, meanwhile, reviewed a set of firm economic and diplomatic sanctions that were provided to the press. They included:

  • terminating all large-scale economic projects, including a new natural gas pipeline linking Siberia and Western Europe;
  • suspending economic credits to the Soviet Union and Poland;
  • imposing a full grain embargo on the Soviet Union;
  • ending all shipments of machinery and electronic equipment;
  • imposing a total trade boycott;
  • banning Soviet ships from Western ports;
  • suspending arms-control talks;
  • recalling Allied ambassadors from Moscow;
  • and curtailing political and cultural/social contacts with the Soviet Union.

The official communiqué asserted bluntly that détente “could not survive if the Soviet Union were again to violate the basic rights of any state to territorial integrity and independence. Poland should be free to decide its own future.” This statement was reinforced by US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, while France and Germany asserted their readiness to cut economic ties with Moscow.

To reinforce those economic threats, Brzezinski coordinated with Lane Kirkland, the powerful and staunchly anti-communist head of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), who led the international labor movement’s preparation of a worldwide boycott of the shipment of goods to and from the Soviet Union.

The Carter administration then communicated to Moscow (both directly and through intentional press leaks) that an invasion of Poland would precipitate turmoil elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, undercut Moscow’s ties with Western European communist parties and the nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, and lead to a further intensification of US-Chinese military cooperation.

The credibility of these signals was bolstered by NATO’s significant force posture along its eastern frontier: More than twenty Allied divisions were stationed along the Iron Curtain, with many more prepared to pour in as reinforcements. The more than three hundred thousand US troops deployed to Europe constituted a decisive part of that forward defense.

Meanwhile, the United States had been working to weaken the Soviets in Afghanistan, as Carter took Moscow by surprise with an increase of financial and material assistance, including weapons, to the Afghan Mujahideen in 1980. While much of the world viewed Iran taking American diplomats hostage at that time as a sign of US weakness, Moscow understood it was suffering pain from US actions in Afghanistan.

A template for today?

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland was ultimately deterred by Carter’s exercise of diplomacy, the threat of crippling economic sanctions, the Alliance’s robust force posture, and a recognition in Moscow that Carter had launched an assertive strategy against Soviet expansionism.

As a result, the crisis began to fade by late December and later became one of Carter’s unheralded successes—one executed by a lame-duck administration, since he’d lost the November election to Ronald Reagan.    

Today, Biden and his own national security team should compare their current context, approach, and next steps to deter Russian aggression to Carter’s management of the 1980 crisis.  

There are key differences: For one, NATO’s force posture along its eastern frontier today is considerably more diluted than it was during the Cold War. And perhaps more importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot help but notice that many top officials on the Biden team were senior Obama administration officials when the US government discouraged Ukraine from resisting Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Just last April, Moscow’s troop build-up along Ukraine’s border yielded little more than a muted response from the Alliance, including the United States.  

Afghanistan also resonates very differently in today’s crisis. Rather than underscoring Alliance unity and US power, the withdrawal in August seeded divisions and raised questions—including in Moscow—about US military resolve.

While the Biden administration is sharing intelligence and coordinating with Ukraine and its allies, it has not publicly articulated the diplomatic and economic sanctions under consideration if Russia were to invade Ukraine again. Nor has NATO significantly bolstered its military posture along its eastern frontier. As a result, the United States and its NATO Allies have yet to signal their readiness to undertake a significant military and economic showdown with Moscow.

Putin was in the fifth year of his career in the KGB when Moscow contemplated an invasion of Poland. One should assume that US and Allied determination in that contingency stands among the benchmarks he’s using to measure the West’s resolve as he contemplates his next move on Ukraine.  As the prospects of another Russian invasion mount, NATO must today match the level of resolve it exercised under the far more challenging contingency it faced in 1980.

Ian Brzezinski is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy.

Further reading

Image: United States President Jimmy Carter, second left, meets, from left to right: US National Security Advisor Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski; US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown; and US Secretary of State-designate Edmund S. Muskie during a working luncheon at Camp David, the presidential retreat near Thurmont, Maryland on Saturday, May 3, 1980. (Photo by Karl H. Schumacher / White House via CNP/Sipa USA/Reuters.)