On November 13, 1982, then-President of the United States Ronald Reagan lifted the sanctions he had imposed on the Soviet Union on December 29, 1981. In reality, what was presented as punishment of the Soviet Union for clamping down on the opposition movement in Poland was in fact an attempt to weaken the already stagnant Soviet economy by initiating an embargo on oil and gas equipment.
This measure, undertaken by the American administration, was another stage of the Cold War, the ongoing conflict between the two superpowers ever since the end of WWII. After a relatively long spell of so-called détente, which followed the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis – the conflict that put the world on the brink of nuclear war – the situation became aggravated, regardless of the signing of a series of important but incomplete non-proliferation treaties.
By the mid-1980s, the Soviet economy was in a critical state, as the country had a hard time shouldering the financial burden of lending support to socialist regimes worldwide. The Soviet Union’s failure to keep up with capitalist states was becoming more and more obvious, a fact which gave the United States the perfect chance to strike and weaken it even more. The Soviet Union continued to survive at the expense of its vast currency reserves and, once the construction of the Urengoy-Western Europe pipeline (a major project already in full swing), its income was expected to significantly increase – something which was very undesirable for the United States.
The Soviet involvement in the Polish opposition movement was the perfect excuse for starting the embargo. In 1980–1982 the political and economic crisis in Poland reached its climax, followed by a general unrest and a wave of strikes all over the country, which eventually grew into a strong opposition movement Solidarity, headed by Lech Walesa. This democratic movement was forced underground after Poland declared martial law to squelch it. Reagan, as an ardent supporter of the Solidarity movement, imposed sanctions on Poland.
Although having a certain degree of involvement in Polish affairs, but fearing an aggressive response from NATO, the Soviet Union did not allow its troops on Polish territory, and therefore did not violate international law. Nevertheless, on December 29, 1981, the sanctions on the part of the United States were imposed. They included a ban on oil and gas equipment delivery for constructing the Urengoy-Western Europe pipeline, suspension of Aeroflot airline flights to the United States, closing down the Soviet buying committee in New York.
According to CIA estimates, the construction of all pipelines planned by the end of 1980s required approximately 15-20 million steel pipes. Therefore, the international blockade of the Soviet Union could cause serious financial damage to the country. “We did think that we had to stop the realization of the project, or at least suspend it,” the US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger recalled, “otherwise, it would give them the strategic advantage and an influx of funds.”
America’s European allies, however, were not ready to sever their economic ties with the Soviet Union and were reluctant to lend the United States their support. The Soviet Union did find a means to complete the construction, producing the pipes at its own expense and burying Reagan’s plans to thwart the project.