Obituary: Viktor Kulikov / Became commander of Warsaw Pact forces

July 5, 1921 - May 28, 2013

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Marshal Viktor Kulikov, the longtime commander of the Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe who resisted efforts to slow the arms race and pressed Poland to squash the Solidarity protest movement, died May 28 in Moscow. He was 91.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced his death.

Marshal Kulikov -- the last active commander to hold the rank of full marshal, equivalent to a U.S. five-star general -- was often the spokesman for a sterner military posture by the Warsaw Pact, an alliance of the Soviet Union and seven Communist East European countries. In the maneuvering that led up to the 1987 treaty limiting the superpowers' nuclear missiles in Europe, it was often Marshal Kulikov who threatened deployment of more weapons as a defense against NATO aggression.

In 1983, he published an article in the Soviet army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda saying he saw "clouds of a threat of war thickening on the horizon." He called the U.S. buildup of missiles in Europe a potential "detonator in the present explosive situation."

Before Poland's Communist government ordered tanks into the streets in December 1981 to put down the Solidarity trade union and its supporters, Marshal Kulikov visited Warsaw 22 times to press Moscow's position that Poland must not veer from Communist orthodoxy. He organized military maneuvers by Soviet and allied troops near and around Polish borders to underline the point.

Earlier, as chief of the general staff of the Soviet army, he helped organize the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and its allies. He also presided over a rapid increase in the size and firepower of Soviet forces.

In 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who was trying to cut military spending and pursue détente with the West, ousted him and other hard-line military leaders from the Communist Party's powerful Central Committee. Mr. Gorbachev was particularly angered to learn that Marshal Kulikov had started new weapons programs without his knowledge.

Viktor Georgiyevich Kulikov was born into a peasant family on July 5, 1921, in the Oryol region of Russia, about 220 miles southwest of Moscow. He joined the Soviet army in 1939, and helped lead a tank brigade from 1943 to 1945. He was later named a Hero of the Soviet Union. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming commander of the Kiev military district in 1967, then commander of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany in 1969. In 1971, Marshal Kulikov, then 50, became chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces, making him the third-ranking officer in the Soviet command structure.

In 1977, Marshal Kulikov became commander of the Warsaw Pact forces, the top field command in the Soviet forces. Western analysts saw his appointment as a sign of Moscow's desire for a strong grip on Eastern Europe at a time of political unrest in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany.

Marshal Kulikov's role in the events leading up to Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law in Poland was a central topic at a 1997 conference in Warsaw to thrash out the history of those tumultuous months. Participants included Soviet military officials, their Polish comrades, White House officials and Solidarity activists. Arrayed around the hall were more than 100 secret government documents from Moscow, Washington, Warsaw and other Eastern-bloc capitals.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, told Marshal Kulikov at the conference that if the Soviet Union had invaded the West during his command of the Warsaw Pact, he would have been killed by Americans within three hours.

A former dissident asked Marshal Kulikov if he had had any wish to get to know the leaders of Solidarity. The marshal replied that it had not been his job.

Marshal Kulikov served in the Soviet and Russian national parliaments after his military service.

In 1990, as the Soviet Union was imploding, public sentiment ran strongly against the military. At the annual parade of old tanks in Red Square celebrating the victory over Germany in World War II, Marshal Kulikov sounded off against "political loudmouths," saying: "We are not icons. We do not demand prayers. But we definitely do not deserve insults, and we will not tolerate them."

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