Soviet nuclear arsenal in Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia was the last communist country of Central and Eastern Europe to host Soviet troops during the Cold War. They arrived in 1968 as “brotherly assistance” to help keep the communist hardliners in power, and they stayed until the fall of communism 19 years later. One of the top secrets of the military command was the fact that the Soviets deployed nuclear warheads on Czechoslovak territory.

General Miroslav Vacek,  photo: CTK
A few days ago, the last Czechoslovak communist Chief of General Staff and the first democratic defence minister, General Miroslav Vacek confirmed that the Soviet Union did have nuclear weapons positioned in Czechoslovakia.

“Of course they were here. The Soviet Army had nuclear weapons in several storage facilities in Czechoslovakia, but the Czechoslovak army did not own them. The storage facilities were built in 1969. I don’t know when exactly nuclear weapons were brought here but it was certainly some time in the 1970s, at the latest.”

The issue whether or not Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia were armed with nuclear weapons was top secret throughout the communist era. An open debate on the issue only started after the 1989 revolution but there was a lack of evidence, one way or another. Even today, the Russian embassy in Prague is refusing to formally confirm the missiles’ existence. Vladimir Fedorov is the embassy’s spokesman.

“As far as Mr Vacek’s statement is concerned, there is good reason to believe that there have never been nuclear weapons on Czech soil.”

Petr Luňák is the author of “Planning the Unthinkable: Czechoslovak War Plans 1950 – 1990”. I asked him if he thought General Vacek was right.

“What surprises me is that General Vacek has come out with this statement because he was until recently vociferously denying the fact that nuclear warhead could have been deployed on Czech territory. In fact, I published a book last year which, among other things, contains a Czechoslovak-Soviet treaty from 1965 that sets the ground for the construction of three nuclear storage facilities for Soviet nuclear war heads. We don’t have any hard evidence that nuclear warheads were actually deployed on Czech territory but we have every reason to believe that they were.”

Former nuclear storage facility in Bělá pod Bezdězem,  photo: Jan Richter
Michael Kocáb is a rock musician whose band, Pražský výběr, was banned in the 1980s. After the revolution he became an MP and masterminded the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia. He took me to Bělá pod Bezdězem, a former Soviet military base and one of the storage facilities for nuclear warheads.

Michael Kocáb at a former Soviet base in Bělá pod Bezdězem,  photo: Jan Richter
“When I was head of the Parliamentary commission for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, at one point I received a message that somewhere between Bělá pod Bezdězem and Kuřivody, near the refugee camp that is here today, there was a bunker where nuclear warheads were allegedly stored. So I got together the army people responsible for the withdrawal and we came here, with an anti-explosive squad, the military police and the Russians were here as well of course. There were quite a few of us here. I think the current Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanová might have been here as well. When we got here we discovered a bunker; after some complications I finally managed to get inside. I am 99.9 percent certain that it was a bunker for nuclear warheads.”

Michael Kocáb at a former Soviet base in Bělá pod Bezdězem,  photo: Jan Richter
Michael Kocáb and his team visited the site in the autumn of 1990, after the warheads had been removed. Revisiting the former Soviet military base, Mr Kocáb took me to a derelict bunker overlooking what once was one of the highest security areas in the country.

“I believe that we are now standing in the launch control room because we are looking at something we both agree might have been a launching pad. It looks like some kind of a small flat plateau with stairs going to the top of it and with gun posts all around it. We are now some 100 to 200 metres from the site where the bunker stood. I think it has been covered up with soil. They must have done it shortly after our visit because they didn’t like us being here at all. But if we searched the whole area here I believe we would find all the other launching pads. I was here with some 30 or 40 other people and they all witnessed what we saw.”

General Eduard Vorobyov and Michael Kocáb,  photo: CTK
The Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia were part of the Central Group of Soviet Forces with potentially defensive and offensive tasks. The last commander of the Soviet forces stationed in Czechoslovakia was General Eduard Vorobyov. On the phone from Moscow, General Vorobyov says he openly talked about nuclear weapons in Czechoslovakia right after the fall of communism.

“I was asked the same question at the first press conference in 1989 on the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia. The answer was affirmative. We did indeed have nuclear weapons in the rocket brigades as part of the Central Group of Soviet Forces that I commanded. During the Cold War, and especially on the frontier with the NATO block, it would be illogical to have nuclear carriers without nuclear ammunition.”

The Czechoslovak army did not have the warheads at its disposal as they would only be released in the event of an armed conflict with the West. They were under the direct command of Moscow headquarters, and were removed very soon after the Warsaw Pact started to collapse in late 1989. General Vorobyov again.

The departure of Red Army
“At the time of the press conference I was talking about, in 1989, all nuclear ammunition had already been removed from Czechoslovak territory – without the participation of the Central Group of Soviet Forces. I was only told that there were no longer any nuclear weapons in Czechoslovakia. Journalists at the press conference also asked me whether chemical weapons were stored in Czechoslovakia, and I said that no chemical weapons whatsoever were positioned there.”

Gradually, the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. For definite proof of a Soviet nuclear arsenal in Czechoslovakia though, we will have to wait for Russian military archives to open up.