The mighty Warsaw Pact died with a whimper, not a bang. The ripples were hardly noticed as a world braced for explosions in a different theater. The conservative movement taking hold in Moscow can reverse most of the reforms of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, but not this. Moscow unburdened itself of Eastern Europe, and cannot get it back.
Born in 1955 as Moscow's response to West Germany's joining NATO, the Warsaw Pact created the fact or illusion of a mighty army of five million fully integrated under Soviet command, ready to roll West at a moment's notice. In fact, the alliance crushed no Western country but only two of its own members, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, when tanks crushed freedom and independence.
The revolutions unleashed by Mr. Gorbachev in Eastern Europe rendered the Warsaw Pact meaningless in 1989, with his apparent approval. The loyalty to Moscow of Czechoslovak, East German, Hungarian, Polish and Romanian -- if not of Bulgarian -- troops had become problematic before then.
Now Mr. Gorbachev has informed Prime Minister Jozsef Antall of Hungary and President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia that Moscow agrees to dismantle the Warsaw Pact by April 1. Meetings this month will formalize that and the end of Comecon, the Soviet trade bloc that the same nations have been deserting in hopes of partaking of Western European prosperity.
In fact, military relations will go on for some time. The countries have equipment made by each other. Changing to the hardware NATO countries use will be expensive, slow or both. The Soviet Union is committed to retain troops in Germany until 1994 and for logistical reasons refuses to quit Poland sooner than that, leading to an impasse with Polish President Lech Walesa. Relations between Moscow and Warsaw are sorely strained. But Soviet troops are leaving Hungary and Czechoslovakia even now.
The Soviet Union remains a massive military power capable of destroying the United States many times over, and its good faith in conventional arms reduction has been brought into question as conservative generals gain greater influence in the Kremlin. But the Gorbachev letters made clear there is no thought of resuscitating the lifeless Warsaw Pact. Its massive tank threat to Western Europe is no more. Its demise may yet be the one bloc development with which NATO cannot cope.