Wednesday, August 20, 2008


A full-page op-ed in Germany’s prestigious conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung caught my eye last Wednesday. Titled “Preventive Nuclear War in Europe”, the article (which is not available online) describes in great detail the Warsaw Pact’s secret military planning for a first-strike massive nuclear surprise attack on Germany and Western Europe during the Cold War. The two highly-respected authors – Dr. Hans Ruehle, a senior ranking German defense ministry official and his son Michael Ruehle, who currently serves as the head NATO’s Policy Planning and Speech Writing Section – base their analysis primarily on relevant Warsaw Pact documents recently declassified by the Czech government.

The Warsaw Pact’s nuclear strategy devised by the Kremlin was heavily influenced by the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Moscow feared that a direct nuclear exchange with America could lead to an Armageddon-type doomsday scenario, the Soviet leaders apparently believed that they could win a limited regional war in Europe by launching a massive surprise nuclear attack on Western Europe, destroy US / NATO nuclear weapons / troops stationed there, and then move in with Red Army tanks to spread the Communist world revolution. The Kremlin fully expected that in a potential European war, the United States / NATO would eventually use nuclear weapons first anyway to counter the Soviet’s huge advantage in conventional forces. Also, ever since Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa” surprise attack in 1941, Stalin and other Soviet leaders after him were in an “offense is the best defense” mindset, believing that they had to rely on first-move advantages to deal with the perceived military and technological threats posed by the United States and NATO.

In 1961, for example, Warsaw Pact intelligence sources were convinced that NATO’s large-scale “Buria” military maneuvers set to begin on August 6th would be used by the Atlantic Alliance to effectively launch WWIII with a nuclear attack at 12:08 pm that day. “In response”, the Warsaw Pact contemplated a pre-emptive nuclear strike exactly three minutes earlier at 12:05 pm. West Germany alone would have been instantly hit by 422 nuclear warheads (attacking both military and civilian targets). Munich, Verona, Vicenza and even Vienna, the capital of neutral Austria, were to be directly attacked with nuclear weapons. In total, well above 1000 Soviet nuclear warheads were to be used to invade Western Europe. On day 7 or 8 of their nuclear war, the Soviets expected to cross the Rhine; on day 9, they expected to reach Lyon, and so forth.

During 1975-1985, the Kremlin leaders also debated unleashing a massive nuclear surprise attack on Western Europe to prevent the anticipated technological-economical rise of the United States and its Western allies. In contrast to many pacifist left-wing protesters in the West, the Soviets recognized and feared the fundamental challenges posed by Ronald Reagan’s arms build-up, the SDI project, etc. For several decades, Moscow did not give its Warsaw Pact satellites any right to weigh in on the bloc’s nuclear strategy. This iron-fisted approach only changed in 1986, one year after the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev took control of the Kremlin. Poland was particularly outspoken in its criticism of the Warsaw Pact’s preventive / pre-emptive nuclear war strategy. In 1986, Polish Communist leader General Jaruzelski told his Soviet counterpart bluntly that “Nobody should believe that in a nuclear war, one can sip a cup of coffee in Paris after five or six days.”

It is not clear why the Cold War never reached the nuclear boiling point. And unless Russia opens up its archives – which is extremely unlikely – we are unlikely to find out why the Soviets decided not to go through with their detailed plans to wage preventive / pre-emptive nuclear war against NATO and Western Europe. If anything, the declassified Warsaw Pact nuclear planning documents are a stern reminder that the Cold War was not as cold, rational and stable as it may appear in retrospect.