During the 1960s Soviet war planners believed the US and its allies would resort to the use of nuclear weapons early in any major conflict between the two Cold War power blocs. As a result, their counter-plan was to preempt that Western use in order to quickly and decisively defeat NATO. Those Soviet war plans therefore called for liberal use of nuclear weapons from the very start, and they deployed them at nearly 600 bases. By the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in December 1991, they possessed a combined total of at least 20,000 tactical and strategic nuclear warheads.
In the northern portion of West Germany alone, the plans called for the use of 189 nuclear weapons, including 177 missiles and 12 gravity bombs ranging in yield from five to 500 kilotons. More than a dozen tactical nuclear weapons were to have been used to support the Soviet breakthrough into tiny Schleswig-Holstein province.
Larger weapons were to have been used to destroy major cities across Western Europe, including Hamburg, Bonn, Munich and Hannover in West Germany; Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amsterdam in the Netherlands; and Antwerp and Brussels in Belgium. No fewer than two nuclear weapons were to have been used to destroy Copenhagen, and five more to wreck all the rest of Denmark. Several northern Italian cities were also targeted. The plans even called for dropping two 500 kiloton weapons on Vienna, despite Austria’s neutrality.
Along with the liberal use of nuclear weapons, the Soviets planned to launch a massive ground campaign aimed at taking over most of Western Europe. The goal was to break through NATO’s frontline and advance swiftly beyond it. In order to achieve that rapid initial success, the Soviets aimed for a troop advantage of 5:1 or 6:1 at the main points of their ground attack.
The objectives differed depending on the front. For example, after the initial nuclear exchange, Czechoslovakian forces were to drive southwest and quickly seize Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Munich. By the ninth day of the war they were supposed to have reached Lyon in southern France. After that, Soviet reinforcements would push on to the Pyrenees, the mountain range that forms the border between Spain and France.
Simultaneous with those operations, Polish and other Soviet troops were to conquer the rest of West Germany, along with all of Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. Securing those areas was deemed crucial in order to prevent the US, Canada and Britain from landing reinforcements on the northwestern part of the continent. As such, the Soviets planned to have secured all of Denmark within a week and to have reached the French Atlantic coast within 14 days.
All those invasion plans called for the communist soldiers to fight in highly radioactive territory that had just been blasted by massive nuclear attacks. In effect, those running the Kremlin were planning on sending forward their own troops until they died of radiation poisoning. Even if the plans succeeded, the USSR would’ve been left with territory in which all the major political and economic centers had been destroyed, with much of it uninhabitable for years or even decades, and all occupied by a ground force in which most of the personnel would be fatally ill.
All that’s known because, following the collapse of the USSR and the pullout of its forces from Eastern Europe that followed, they left behind thousands of documents and maps detailing their plans for a war with NATO. In their rush to leave that was probably due to carelessness by an army already falling apart. Alternatively, it may have been intended as a warning to the West of what awaited if they ever waged war against post-Soviet Russia in the future. By way of comparison, it’s interesting to note few documents were left behind regarding Soviet biological and chemical weapons capabilities and plans.
Today Russia possess some 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads and somewhere between 500 to 2,000 tactical ones. Though there have been no detailed assessments published in regard to the attitude of today’s Russian high command toward the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a major war, it should be kept in mind most of their generals grew up in a military culture that stressed the advantages of surprise nuclear strikes at the start of any such conflict. Further, the still much-debilitated Russian military – which remains underfunded, under-resourced, undermanned and is also still plagued with endemic corruption and criminality – might quickly find itself with no alternative other than to rely on the tremendous combat power such weapons would provide in a major war.
According to Russia’s most recently issued official military doctrine: “Readiness to employ tactical nuclear weapons can be demonstrated by methods such as the simulation of a nuclear attack.” In the event of an actual war, the Russians might therefore be expected to launch a demonstration nuclear strike in an uninhabited area (of their own or possibly their enemy’s country) or in a part of the ocean away from major shipping routes.
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