Curtain falls on old order: Amid Baltic suspicions and handshakes in Berlin, the last Russian troops withdraw from Eastern Europe

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S military withdrawal from Eastern Europe is being completed less than five years after the 1989 revolutions that swept away a decaying Communist order. The soldiers' departure marks the end of an age in which Russian power was projected more deeply into Europe than in any previous era, writes Tony Barber.

At the start of 1989, at least 550,000 Soviet troops were stationed in the region, as well as another 150,000 in the three Baltic republics, then part of the Soviet Union. The largest contingent was the 370,000-strong force in the former East Germany, an army twice as large as the East German Volksarmee. The fact that the Soviet troops were based in the so-called 'northern tier' countries of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, rather than the 'southern tier' of Romania and Bulgaria, underlined the historic Russian fear of invasion across the plains of Central Europe.

Yet in the five decades that Soviet soldiers spent in Eastern Europe, the only occasions on which they were called into action were when they suppressed popular liberation movements on the soil of their nominal allies. This happened in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the Baltic republics, annexed by Stalin in 1940 and reoccupied in 1944 after Nazi rule, Soviet forces were used to crush guerrilla movements that held out until the early 1950s.