We have lately been celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the destruction of the Hitlerite Beast by the Krasnaya Armiya (with some help) (here and here). And I see the Russians have a site entitled Our Victory Day by Day, which has some good photos and some cool period music. It is also worth repeating here that the absolute champion of all Great Patriotic War websites remains the incredible Russian Battlefield. (The memoirs on this site are particularly interesting, as are the many photos.)
This is as good a time as any to think again about the blowout war the Soviet Army almost fought, and wanted to fight, but never did. Gary Brecher, a/k/a War Nerd has an excellent column about this interview with retired Colonel General Matvey Burlakov. Brecher says:
If you’re anything like me, you probably spent a lot of the 80s imagining what would happen if the big NATO-Warsaw Pact war in Central Europe came along. It’s still hard for me to believe sometimes that the whole showdown just faded away without a shot fired.
Agreed. (I spent some time playing Firefight, a hexmap-and-cardboard counters tactical wargame from SPI. The Russians always had way more stuff to throw at you if you played NATO.) I thought the Soviets were going to roll. I spent the entire period up to 1989 figuring that there was at least an even chance that all this “glasnost” crap would end with a new crackdown, serious communists would snap out of their funk and start arresting and shooting week people like Gorbachev, and that there would be an all-out attack on the West as a way to call off the economic and political competition they were clearly losing. Fortunately, it never happened. Brecher goes on:
After the Soviets went out of business, I thought we’d get some really solid info on what the Warsaw Pact forces had planned, especially what their nuke and irregular forces (SpetzNaz teams) had in mind in the way of first strike and sabotage. Probably “we” did, meaning the intel community. But whatever they got, they didn’t pass along much of it to us civilians out there.
However, we never really did get a good, blunt statement of what the Soviets were up to, shorn of disinformation and propaganda. Burlakov has this to say:
The height of the Cold War was at the beginning of the 1980s. All they had to do was give the signal and everything would have gone off. Everything was battle-ready. The shells were in the tanks. They just had to be loaded and fired. We would have burned and destroyed everything they had.
This remarkable exchange sounds about right to me:
Was the use of nuclear weapons planned for?
We would have struck first?
Foreign Minister Gromyko said that the USSR would not use nuclear weapons first.
He said one thing and the military thought another. We are the ones who are responsible for wars.
Isn’t the political leadership responsible for waging war?
The political leadership – Gorbachev and the others – betrayed the Soviet Union. The Americans bought them.
They say we would have made it to Paris in a week.
Easy. We had a sea of tanks in the Western Group of Forces. Three tank armies! And what did the Germans have? The workweek ends on Friday and then you wouldn’t find anyone, not a minister or a soldier. Just guards. By the time they realized what was happening, we would have burned up their tanks and looted their armories. There was no question about it.
I’m inclined to believe the old general when he says the Soviet tank armies would’ve kicked ass. The NATO forces were in a hopeless deployment: jammed into West Germany, an indefensible strip of heavily-populated territory. No strategic depth available, meaning the advantage was with whoever struck first. Once the population realized the Russians were coming, every Beemer and Merc in Germany would have hit the roads, those same roads our tanks were supposed to use. In that chaos, the Bundeswehr would have dissolved into a bunch of terrified locals looking for their families.
So why didn’t they attack? We’ll probably never know. They were deterred, but by what? Not NATO’s conventional army. I tend to think that at the end the Soviet leadership was afraid of the Pershing and cruise missiles which could accurately target their bunkers. They realized that they would not personally survive a nuclear war. I suspect that was it. Perhaps more details will eventually emerge from the scrap pile. But I doubt it. Putin is reimposing authoritarian rule on Russia, the historical norm, and the brief period of partial political and press freedom is now ending and I have no reason to think it will recur. So whatever we know now is probably all we’ll ever know.
Burlakov’s attitude is worth pondering when someone says it would be “irrational” for some country somewhere to start a war. It does not always look that way from the other side, or to certain decision-makers on the other side.
(Interestingly, Burlakov did not just sit on the stoop grumbling about the armored and nuclear holocaust he never got to unleash. He apparently got heavily involved in that specialty of the former Soviet Army, organized crime.)