Gregory F. Domber: What Putin Misunderstands about American Power

Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War, by Gregory F. DomberWe welcome a guest post today from Gregory F. Domber, author of Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (October 2014). During the 1980s, both the United States and the Soviet Union vied for influence over Poland’s politically tumultuous steps toward democratic revolution. In Empowering Revolution, Domber examines American policy toward Poland and its promotion of moderate voices within the opposition, while simultaneously addressing the Soviet and European influences on Poland’s revolution in 1989.

In today’s post, Domber counters Vladimir Putin’s current denouncements of American manipulation of regime changes throughout the world with an account of America’s backseat approach to revolution in Poland 25 years ago.


This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolutions that brought an end to Soviet-dominated Communist governments in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. And while these countries have all successfully rejoined Europe, the mythology of the revolutions of 1989 is now echoing further to the east—in the Ukrainian crisis—where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worldview is informed by a skewed vision of America’s central role in undermining the Soviet Union’s empire. As numerous commentators have noted, Putin is pushing a new nationalist conservatism with a strong strain of anti-Americanism, promoting a vision of the United States as the primary conspirator pulling strings to foster international chaos and regime change.

As former Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul noted recently in the New Yorker, “Putin has a theory of American power that has some empirical basis.” The CIA overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, the United States bombed Belgrade to remove a dictator, and there is, of course, Iraq. However, a close examination of American policy toward Poland—the country the United States pushed hardest to break from the Soviet sphere in the 1980s—brings to the fore just how far the Russian president’s views are removed from reality. The United States is not nearly the revolutionary mastermind Putin seems to think it is.

From the birth of the Solidarity trade union in 1980, the U.S. government understood the movement’s potential to overturn the status quo; it was an independent trade union in a country where the government’s legitimacy grew out of an ideology based on defending workers. But the Carter and early Reagan administrations initially restrained their direct contacts with the movement because Solidarity distanced itself from foreign governments and only accepted things like fax machines, office supplies, and printing equipment from other trade unions.

After General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in December 1981 and Solidarity leaders were either jailed or forced into the underground, the United States took a more provocative line. The Reagan administration announced a list of stinging but limited economic sanctions. The AFL-CIO mobilized a pre-existing network of trade unionists and émigré Poles to send in cash, printing supplies, and communications, editing, and recording equipment. The CIA also jumped in for the first time, funneling money and communications equipment through their own operatives. In addition, from 1984 to 1989, Congress appropriated roughly $10 million for programs to support opposition in Poland, overseen by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Understanding the exact mechanism of how this support made its way to Poland exposes the limitation of American political influence there. For example, Congressional money first went to NED, who then provided grants to American groups like the Polish American Congress and the AFL-CIO’s Free Trade Union Institute. Implementation of the grants was outsourced to groups of Polish emigres working in Western Europe, people like Irena Lasota in Paris, Eugeniusz Smolar in London, and Jerzy Milewski in Brussels. These activists then employed their preferred smuggling techniques. Lasota chose to shuttle small amounts of cash (usually around $500) through a network of trusted couriers. Milewski’s man in charge of smuggling, Mirek Chojecki, disassembled printing equipment and other goods and hid them with sympathetic truckers bringing a steady stream of humanitarian aid into Poland.

Because this was secretive work, few if any records were kept and reports back to Washington were necessarily broad. The Americans trusted the Poles to act as they saw fit. The decision of whether this money was used to pay workers laid off for political activities, to buy computers for underground editors, or to reproduce banned movies on video cassettes (so people could watch them at home) was determined by the Polish activists themselves.

The CIA had even weaker connections to dissidents in the underground. The agency camouflaged its funds through numerous front organizations and corporations so that both the Communist authorities and Solidarity would not know its true origin. John Davis, the head American diplomat in Poland from 1983 to 1990, also prohibited CIA officials in the embassy from meeting with Solidarity leaders, for fear that exposure could delegitimize those activists. So while the U.S. government acted as a financier for the opposition, there were few mechanisms to exercise any kind of political direction over how the dissidents ran their revolution.

When the U.S. government did take extraordinary steps to try to directly influence political dynamics in Poland, it was to stabilize revolutionary tensions rather than exacerbate them. First, in June 1989, John Davis sat down with a number of Solidarity intellectuals to discuss how to make more palatable an unpleasant task they had already decided to take—to vote for Jaruzelski as Poland’s first elected president. Davis explained how “head counting,” manipulating the number of Solidarity parliamentarians present for the vote, would decrease the number of opposition members who actually had to vote for their former jailor. Similarly, when President George H. W. Bush visited in July of that year he made a concerted effort to show support for Jaruzelski in private and public, to fortify the general’s desire to accept the office and to strengthen the Polish people’s confidence in him. Both strategies succeeded and the revolution of 1989 actually led to a power-sharing government in which Solidarity held a majority in parliament, but Jaruzelski remained as president and other Communists maintained their positions as the heads of defense and internal affairs.

The United States did not topple the communist system in Poland. American money empowered a kind of professional dissident class, individuals who could pursue underground publishing and activism full time. But these leaders, intellectuals, and revolutionaries did not act because of what Americans told them to do; they acted independently based on their own ideas and strategies of how to pursue change in their country. The United States was not some kind of omnipotent puppet master.

More importantly, these dissidents were only powerful because the Polish population believed in them. Jaruzelski sought negotiations with Solidarity in 1988 because he was afraid that a new round of strikes would push the country into collapse. The general knew that he needed the opposition’s support to implement painful reforms to get the economy functioning again. To attain that support the Communists allowed the opposition to compete in semi-free elections in June 1989. In a show of public support for the opposition’s cause, Solidarity candidates won all but one of the seats they were allowed to fill. The movement then won a parliamentary majority when it cut a deal with members of the Communist coalition who could see that the Communist Party’s power was coming to an end.

These were all decisions made by Poles based on indigenous political calculations. The Soviet empire collapsed in Eastern Europe because the opposition was so popular, the existing system was so widely despised, and forty years of Communist rule had led to economic desperation and political stagnation.

While Vladimir Putin wants to see the dark hand of American spymasters manipulating protesters in Tahrir Square and the Maidan—and triumphalist American accounts of the end of the Cold War have promoted a similar narrative—a close review of the past shows that the U.S. government lacked mechanisms for any direct political control over revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe. The United States did not call the shots. Washington was actually quite chaos averse itself, choosing to promote stable, evolutionary change rather than a revolutionary clean sweep. Over the long term, if Putin wants to keep power he should worry about maintaining his domestic legitimacy, not the actions of outside powers.

Gregory F. Domber is associate professor of history at the University of North Florida and author of Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (October 2014).