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The Beginning of the End for Détente: The Warsaw Pact Political Consultative Committee

CWIHP e-Dossier No. 24 

Despite high hopes for a long-lasting détente between the two superpowers following the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975, the relationship between the Western bloc and the Warsaw Pact came under increasing pressure in the later part of the decade. The election of Jimmy Carter as president and his focus on human rights, coupled with a shifting military balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union set the stage for increasing tensions between the two superpowers and their respective allies. Increasing deterioration of the Sino-Soviet relationship further added to the instability.

Confident that the world was going their way, as Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin suggested in the title of their 2006 book on KGB involvement in promoting and supporting Soviet goals in the Third World, the Political Consultative Committee – the supreme political decision forum of the alliance – met in Moscow in November 1978 to discuss the developing international situation and the report of the Warsaw Pact Commander-in-Chief of the Unified Armed Forces, Marshal Victor Kulikov. Soviet leaders pressed the Warsaw Pact for increased military spending and modernization of the armed forces and organization.[1]

The document published below [click to open in a new window] consists of the notes taken by the Romanian side at the meeting.[2] It represents a new insight into the relationship between the Romanian leadership and its putative allies in the Warsaw Pact. Taken together with other Romanian documents available on the preparations leading up to the Moscow meeting as well as assessments of the meeting prepared in Bucharest and Warsaw,[3] this document shows the tensions between Ceausescu’s desire for the demilitarization and dissolution of the two superpower-led blocs and the desires of the Soviet and East European leaderships for increasing cooperation and coordination in the alliance. It also reflects the consistent fear of the Soviet leadership of a rising Communist China as an enemy of the Soviet Union.

The early part of the 1970s seemed to usher in an era of renewed cooperation between the two superpowers. The signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 accomplished a long term Soviet goal of recognizing the post-war borders of the Soviet Union and of its European allies, and established a status quo which recognized Soviet westward expansion.[4] Nuclear parity between the two superpowers, another long-sought-after Soviet goal also became a reality, and new developments in missile and warhead technology increased the lethality of existing stockpiles. There was a certain degree of optimism that permeated the leaderships in Moscow and Washington.[5] Yet the relationship between the two superpowers was slowly eroding under the impact of international developments.[6] The Kremlin saw in the successes of national liberation movements an opportunity to further expand its influence. Soviet direct or indirect involvement in Angola and the Horn of Africa exacerbated the inherent tension in the system. At the same time, the United States saw an opportunity in developing its relationship with China, not only as an end in itself, but also as a way to counteract Soviet expansionism.[7] Carter’s focus on human rights and his willingness to continually and publically address the issue in relationship with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was seen in Moscow as a direct attack on their legitimacy.[8]

As Brezhnev’s speech in Moscow shows, by 1978 the Kremlin believed that the tide of history was turning its way. While recognizing that the communist camp still faced challenges, he saw the West reacting at “the growing strength of the force and position of socialism.” The socialist countries, he continued, can expect a massive attack against détente as “the [world] revolution is maturing on a national basis.”[9] It is for this very reason that socialist countries must act together in unison, Brezhnev stressed. “Experience shows that when the socialist countries are acting together, they are able to repel attacks, to improve the situation, and to promote détente.”[10] Chinese deviationism, Beijing’s cooperation with Washington, and its pressures on Hanoi, Brezhnev stressed, must not be encouraged either directly or indirectly by “clos[ing] one’s eyes”—a direct attack on Romania’s balancing position between Beijing and Moscow.[11]

Ceausescu’s “national communist” policies and his focus on the Party’s independence of action vis-à-vis the Kremlin were not new. Since 1952, Romanian communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej had increasingly emphasized a “going it alone” attitude in Romanian foreign policy. By the time of his death in 1965, Dej had established the Romanian Workers’ Party (as the RCP was known at the time) as willing to defy the Soviet leadership on important aspects of international communist policy.[12] What was new was Ceausescu’s increasing willingness to forego diplomatic niceties in favor of blunt accusations and opposition to any Soviet inspired proposal meant to facilitate further integration of Warsaw Pact decision making and military organization and policy. By the late 1970s, both in the Warsaw Pact and in the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), Romanian obstructionism toward any integration level of political, military or economic integration of the Soviet bloc had turned them into the equivalent of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko for the West: Mr. Nyet.[13]

The Romanian attitude, both in the working groups and in the Pact’s summit meetings, was the cause of increasing frustration for the other allies. A November 1978 information memorandum prepared for the information of the Polish Central Committee described Ceausescu’s presentation and ideas as “fundamentally different [from those of the other Warsaw Pact leaders] regarding a majority of issues.”[14] “The stance of Romania’s delegation and the Moscow meeting of the Political Consultative Committee confirmed in a particularly glaring fashion the Romanian leadership’s growing deviation over a longer period of time from the common line of the Warsaw Treaty states.”[15]

Two central issues had been the focus of contention between the Romanian position and the position of the other Warsaw Pact members. The first concerned the proposed Declaration to be signed by the Summit participants, a declaration which sought to unilaterally condemn NATO for restarting an arms race and suggest that the modernization of forces and increase in budgets adopted by the Western alliance would inevitably lead to war.[16] Ceausescu’s interpretation, rather, was that with parity between the blocs, no further increase was necessary for the Warsaw Pact, that war was by no means inevitable, and that the delegations would adopt a unilateral five percent cut in defense expenditures.[17]

Other parts of the Declaration were also contested by the Romanian delegation, including a condemnation of the Camp David accords, support for Vietnam, and China’s foreign policy. This was anathema to the Romanian position; relations between the PRC and Romania, while not particularly warm, were much improved as compared with Chinese relations with other Eastern Bloc countries. Chinese leader Hua Guofeng had recently visited Romania, where he held consultations with Ceausescu on the international situation and Chinese-Romanian relations. In the context of increasing pressure on Vietnam by the Chinese party and military, Hua’s visit to Bucharest was attacked in the Soviet and East European press, something that Ceausescu himself brought up at the Moscow meeting. As these documents make clear, China’s role in the international communist system and in international affairs was a major concern to the Soviet leadership. Brezhnev’s presentation focused extensively on Soviet perceptions of Chinese revisionism and opportunism.[18]

The second point of Romanian opposition was the presentation of Marshal Viktor Kulikov, the Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of the Unified Warsaw Pact Forces (UWPF) on the status of the military cooperation among the armed forces of the Warsaw Treaty members. In a RCP Politburo meeting following the Moscow summit, the report was described as a “creation of the Soviet militarist circles, which seek out excessive militarization by replacing current weapons systems, co-opting [Warsaw Pact] participants in the dangerous weapons race and in the expenses that result from this adventurist choice.”[19] Of most concern to Romania, and to Ceausescu personally, was the idea that under a state of war, command of the Warsaw Pact troops would be transferred to the CINC UWPF, something that the Romanian leadership was adamantly opposed to and considered “interference by the Soviet Union in internal Romanian affairs.”[20]

Having refused to sign the resolution on military matters, Ceausescu maintained that the resolution was, from the legal point of view of the treaty, null and void. Having suggested in Moscow that the refusal of the other member states to re-open discussions on the report would force the Romanian party to bring up the issue with their party cadre—in effect widely publicizing the disagreements within the alliance—the Romanian Politburo decided that it would write a letter to the Central Committees of the Warsaw Pact member states restating their position.[21] The Party leadership would also inform the Party Cadre, albeit in a general, broad-stroke way. Bilaterally, Ceausescu told the Politburo, “they [the other member states] can do whatever they want, and we can’t stop them, but they cannot take such decision in the Political Consultative Committee or the Committee of Defense Ministers [without our agreement].”[22]

The Polish analysis of the meeting provided a clear and concise concluding note for the Romanian position. “Overall,” the memorandum stated, “the Moscow meeting confirmed that Romania’s stance regarding many international questions has undergone a further, negative evolution; the existing divisions are deepening. Romania is conducting ever more clearly a foreign policy contrary to the principles of socialist internationalism. […] Cde. Ceausescu’s refusal to sign the resolution on military matters […] will lead to the further weakening of Romania’s ties to the Warsaw Treaty’s military structure.”[23] That weakening, rather than an outright break of ties, was Ceausescu’s preferred outcome.

Mircea Munteanu is a historian with the Office of the Historian at the Department of State, where he works on compilations of the Foreign Relations of the United States documentary series. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Government or the Department of State.


Notes by Vasile Sandru, "The meeting of the Political Consultative Committee of the Warsaw Treaty member countries, Moscow, 22-23 November 1978."


[1]Notes by Vasile Sandru, “The meeting of the Political Consultative Committee of the Warsaw Treaty member countries, Moscow, 22-23 November 1978," Cold War International History Project (CWIHP),, by permission of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, p.1.

[2] Notes taken by Ambassador Vasile Sandru, former Romanian envoy to Spain, Yugoslavia, and, after the fall of the Ceausescu regime, the last Romanian ambassador to the Soviet Union. Given to CWIHP by Sandru from his personal files.

[3] Discussions in the Romanian Executive Political Bureau (Politburo) are available in CWIHP Document Reader “Romanian and the Warsaw Pact,” edited by Mircea Munteanu for the International Conference Romania and the Warsaw Pact, Bucharest, 2002. The Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact also published additional documents from the Czech, German, and Polish Archives. See Parallel History Project for NATO and the Warsaw Pact,

[4] Raymond Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, Revised Edition (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1994), p. 611.

[5] James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang, “FORUM: When Empathy Failed Using Critical Oral History to Reassess the Collapse of U.S.-Soviet Détente in the Carter-Brezhnev Years,” in Journal of Cold War Studies, Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2010, pp-29-30.

[6] Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, p. 594.

[7] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Advisor, 1977-1981, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983), p. 178 and following

[8] Soviet and Eastern European frustration with the West’s focus on human rights is evident throughout discussions amongst themselves or with Western officials. As early as 1969—at the height if détente—human rights and “ideological diversion” presented special challenges for the East European governments. Perhaps indicative of this view are the conversations between the East German Interior Minister Erich Mielke and the first Deputy of the KGB Chairman Semeon Zvigun in 1969 or the conversation Mielke had with KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov in July of 1981. In 1969, Zvigun told Mielke that “ideological diversion represents the most important form of imperialism’s fight against the Soviet Union and the other socialist states […] part of the imperialists’ global strategy.”  (Note on Meeting with Soviet Comrades, 13 November 1969, BStU, ZA MfS, SdM, Nr. 577. Translated for CWIHP by Bernd Schaefer). By 1981, KGB Chairman Andropov, while speaking of dissidents, acknowledged that “if previously we were able to discuss with such people, under present tense conditions we have to arrest them.” The West’s, Andropov continued, “main method in the current struggle is political-ideological diversion. The two of us were absolutely right [in predicting this.]” (Note about the Talk of Comrade Minister [Mielke] with the Chairman of the KGB, Comrade Andropov, 11 July 1981, BStU, ZA, MfS, ZAIG 5382. Translated for CWIHP by Bernd Schaefer.) Both documents, made available to the author in draft form, will be published as part of an upcoming e-Dossier on MfS-KGB cooperation during the Cold War edited by Douglas Selvage and Walter Suess and made available in the CWIHP Digital Archive.

[9]Sandru, “Meeting of the Political Consultative Committee,” p. 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p. 4.

[12] For a broad discussion of national communism in Romania and the emergence of the autonomous current in Romanian foreign policy, see Vladimir Tismaneanu, Stalinism for all Seasons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Vladimir Tismaneanu, “Gheorghiu-Dej and the Romanian Workers' Party: From de-Sovietization to the Emergence of National Communism,” CWIHP Working Paper No. 37; Dennis Deletant, Communist Terror in Romania: Gheorghiu-Dej and the Police State, 1948-1965, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); and Dennis Deletant and Mihail Ionescu, “Romania and the Warsaw Pact,” CWIHP Working Paper No. 43.

[13] For the frustration experienced by the other East European countries in relations to the Romanian negotiating position, see Randall W. Stone, Satellites and Commissars: Strategy and Conflict in the Politics of Soviet-Bloc Trade, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 132. See also Deletant and Ionescu, CWIHP Working Paper No. 43.

[14] Undated [November 1978] Information Note, obtained and translated by Douglas Selvage for the Parallel History Project on Cooperative Security (PHP),, by permission of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich on behalf of the PHP network, p. 5. Original available at the PHP website and the Modern Records Archive (ANN), Warsaw, KC PZPR, XIB/172, K 64-81.

[15] Ibid, p. 7

[16]Sandru, “Meeting of the Political Consultative Committee,”  p. 13

[17] The Romanian leadership was keenly aware that the other delegations would not accept a defense budget cut. Nevertheless, they chose to maintain the position in order to “influence the Soviet and East European parties.” See Minutes of Conversation of the Political Executive Committee of the CC RCP, 20 November 1978, Romanian National Archives, CCRCP Chancellery Files, 87/1978, p. 12. Published in Mircea Munteanu (ed.), “Romania and the Warsaw Pact, 1955-1989,” vol. 2, (Washington, DC: Cold War International History Project, 2002), pp. 173-184.

[18]Sandru, “Meeting of the Political Consultative Committee,”  p. 3-4, as well as the interventions of Edward Gierek, p. 9, Janos Kadar, p. 12, and Gustav Husak, p. 16. See also the Brezhnev and Gierek speeches available at Parallel History Project on Cooperative Security at

[19] Minutes of Conversation of the Political Executive Committee of the CC RCP, 24 November 1978, Romanian National Archives, CCRCP Chancellery Files, 89/1978, p. 3. Published in Mircea Munteanu (ed.), “Romania and the Warsaw Pact, 1955-1989,” vol. 2, (Washington: Cold War International History Project, 2002), pp. 207-229.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid. p.12.

[22] Ibid. p.16.

[23]Information note, Nov. 1978, pp. 9-10.


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Mircea Munteanu

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