Poland's new conservative government recently made public some 1,700 volumes of previously secret Warsaw Pact documents. Poland’s Defense Minister, Radek Sikorski, who approved the transfer of the documents to a public archive, called it “a symbolic end of the communist era.”
And rightly so, for the documents contain some stunning revelations. For instance, in the last decades of the Cold War, Soviet military planning was based on a doomsday scenario. The plan, titled “Seven Days to Rhine,” was a “counterattack” in response to NATO aggression which would result in the Soviet conquest of most of Western Europe. It would have invited retaliatory nuclear strikes on Moscow’s own unwilling Warsaw Pact allies while its nuclear arsenal would target the major population centers of Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark. The plan would have wiped out Bonn, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Munich, Hamburg, Brussels, Copenhagen, Warsaw and Prague as well as scores of smaller cities. According to Sikorski, the critical part of the plan was the Soviet willingness to sacrifice its own “allies” in the scheme.
Other documents released last week revealed new details about “Operation Danube”—the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968—and the 1970 massacre of shipyard workers by communist police in the Polish port city of Szczecin.
The release of the documents created a sensation in central Europe and irritated the Russian government. Yet, as Cold War-era Soviet documents go, these are only the tip of the iceberg. Vast quantities of documents with many potential bombshells have yet to see the light of day. Some of them will have a value that goes beyond fodder for historical monographs.
In the present worldwide struggle against terrorism, there is much to be learned about the origins, training, tactics and resources of well-known terrorist groups. Soviet-era archives have much information that is critical to the war on terror.
Although the effects of international terrorism are the subject of much discussion, its origins remain murky. However, most of the major terrorist groups in the world today, including parts of al Qaeda, can trace their origins to Soviet covert operations during the Cold War.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets pursued a strategy of indirect attack against the U.S. and American allies around the world. Many infamous terrorist or “liberation” movements were an essential part of this strategy. Although the Soviets found plenty of willing allies in countries around the world, it was Moscow that provided the means to conduct bloody attacks and initiate local conflicts that destabilized scores of countries and bred terror. To this end, Soviet secret services provided financial assistance, logistical support, supplies, training and direction.
This aid to terrorism, however, was never given directly. Instead the Soviets used third parties and a wide range of front groups to conduct these operations. Thus, countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Cuba—or the secret services of other Warsaw Pact allies—were used to do the actual work. Some of these countries created their own front organizations to hide further their involvement.
In the Middle East, groups such as the PLO and Hezbollah were the most obvious beneficiaries of this program. In Latin America, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and later Peru’s Shining Path were supported by Cuba. Smaller terror groups included Action Directe (France), Red Army Faction (Germany), and the Japanese Red Army. Although some of the groups were overtly leftist, the Soviets were perfectly willing to recruit and use terrorists of any ideological stripe, including some that on their face would have opposed communism.
Perhaps it seemed strange to some in the 1970s that Arab terrorists would be arrested in Latin America aiding communist rebels, or that the Italian Red Brigades would get arms from the PLO, or that the Japanese Red Army would stage a bloody attack on an Israeli airport in 1972. By then there was a functioning international network of terrorists that was operating out of Soviet-allied countries. Perhaps the most obvious example was the infamous Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal, recruited by the KGB in Moscow, who was an active participant in Middle East terror.
For decades, many in the West, including many who should have known better, refused to believe that the Soviets so thoroughly supported international terrorism. Incredibly, during the height of the Cold War, U.S. intelligence reflected this belief and expended little effort on tracking these Soviet actions. It was only in the 1980s that the U.S. began to collect systematically intelligence on Soviet support for international terrorism.
Because of this, there remains much that we can learn about international terrorism from secret Soviet archives. As the Russian government is supposed to be our ally against international terrorism, it could help the U.S. and its allies to find missing pieces of the international terrorism puzzle. Many of the networks, the personnel and the tactics are still in play. Many organizations remain an active threat. Hezbollah and Japanese Red Army, for example, remain under the wing of Syria. The only logical reason for not releasing this information is that the Russians continue to see these contacts as helpful.
The overall strategy is still being used. Recent reports based on captured Iraqi documents show that Saddam followed the Soviet example and ran terrorist camps that in just three years, from 1999 to 2002, trained an estimated 8,000 terrorists. How many were trained in Syria over the past 30 or more years? How many were trained in Cuba since Castro came to power? Where are these people today? When we see a well-trained communist rebellion in a country like Nepal—an old flashpoint between India and China—do we see this as a purely indigenous movement? And how did they learn to make bombs or conduct ambushes?
Minister Sikorski’s release of a new cache of Soviet documents gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what remains hidden in the Soviet archives. It is time for the U.S. to demand that Russia follow the Polish example and reveal the skeletons in its filing cabinet.
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