A Soviet Drive into the Middle East, 1948-49 – What If? By Ty Bomba

Immediately after the end of World War II, Stalin’s strategic outlook was centered on the idea of holding secure what had just been won in the struggle against Nazi Germany. He codified that thinking in a lengthy memo he wrote early in 1947 titled: “Plan for the Active Defense of the Territory of the Soviet Union.”

In it, he forecast, were a new war to begin, it would do so via an Anglo-Allied attack into the Central European lands recently occupied by the Soviets. In turn, the Red Army’s initial mission would be to defeat that aggression before it could go far enough east to reach the Russian Motherland proper. The overall goal was to “secure the invulnerability of the boundaries established by international agreement after World War II.”

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Since he still didn’t have an atomic bomb, his further thinking centered around defeating that US nuclear monopoly by deploying Soviet conventional strength on the ground. He therefore ordered the smaller postwar Red Army to be made more combat efficient via full motorization, which was mostly completed by 1949.

Despite the greater access to Kremlin records granted historians since the implosion of the USSR, no document has as yet emerged telling exactly when Stalin moved from the doctrine of strategic defense to one of strategic offense. Even so, though it remains impossible to distinguish exactly when he crossed that line, we know that sometime in 1948 he had made the switch in his thinking.

The evidence for that comes from his split with Yugoslav communist dictator Josef Broz Tito in March of that year. The long-offered explanation for their mutual alienation was it had come about due to Stalin’s jealously of the alternative approach to socialization presented by the smaller country’s dictator. As such, the blame for the split later offered by historians was kept centered on the Soviet dictator’s well known ego and belief in his own unique mission in history in regard to the final unfolding of communist dominance of the planet. More recently, though, as documents from the former Yugoslav government have become available, we know that interpretation is only part of the story.

The main reason the break came about was due to Tito’s desire to set up Yugoslavia as regional hegemon of the Balkans. More particularly, he saw the then burgeoning Greek Civil War as the means to do that. He pleaded, if Stalin would only give logistical support for Yugoslav and Albanian forces to intervene there, a quick and complete communist victory could be won.

Stalin disagreed, not on principle, but due to the fact he was then in the process of fully consolidating his own control over what he judged more strategically valuable territory to the north of the Balkans – namely Czechoslovakia and Poland – and in the Far East, via the communist victory looming in China’s civil war. He felt certain any open communist invasion of Greece would bring swift retaliation by the British and Americans, who had strong aero-naval forces on hand close by in the Mediterranean.

It therefore was best, he maintained, to let the communist momentum building on those more important fronts carry forward the socialist bloc to the proper moment for launching a larger war against the main opponents: the US and UK. Of course, for Tito, the Balkan peninsula was the crucial front.

Since Tito was unwilling to back off from his own idea, Stalin clothed the resultant split in ideological wrappings rather than discussing it as a disagreement over the best time and place to start World War III. In turn, Tito gave up launching his proposed invasion of Greece, since he had no confidence in its success minus at least Soviet logistical support.

Had Stalin been somewhat less egotistical, or had he merely had a different opinion of Euro-Asian strategic geography, we could’ve had a Third World War that began in the Balkans in 1948 or 1949, and that was then likely to have quickly expanded from there across all of southwest Asia. That expansion would’ve taken place for two reasons.

First, given the range of the US bomber force at the time, the only places from which the Americans could’ve dependably delivered their “air atomic” counteroffensive against the industrial vitals of the USSR – then still mostly in and just east of the Urals, after having been moved there to keep them out of German hands during the previous war – would’ve been from borrowed British bases on Cyprus, Crete and at Suez.

Second, America – which had been the powerhouse oil exporter for the whole Anglo-Allied war effort during World War II – was passing peak production. That meant the oilfields of the Mid-East would be crucial to any major new war effort by those nations. Those oilfields, in turn (see map) were almost totally undefended, and they lay much closer to the Red Army’s start lines than they did to any centers of Anglo-Allied power. Their early seizure in any new World War would’ve had powerful effect on the Allied capabilities.

At the end of World War II the Soviet Union had some 12.7 million personnel under arms, with the Red Army fielding approximately 477 division-equivalents supported by about 35,500 combat aircraft. By the end of 1947, the agricultural and industrial labor requirements for postwar reconstruction had allowed for only 4.4 million of those personnel to be kept in service along with about 24,000 aircraft. Meanwhile, however, the Anglo-Allied militaries declined from their wartime highs into an even smaller force.

If World War III had begun during 1948-49, it’s difficult to evaluate which side would’ve won. At the conventional level, it’s possible the Soviets could’ve achieved the overrunning of Western Europe and/or Southwest Asia that Allied planners feared. At the same time, though, if those Soviet advances didn’t break overall Allied morale, or failed to push the USAF bombers out of range, thereby allowing time for the US “air atomic” strategic counteroffensive to be carried out, it’s difficult to imagine how the Soviets could’ve held up against that kind of destruction.

It would most likely have been a close-run thing for both sides, with its final outcome dependent on which side kept up its morale – and therefore its determination to go on fighting – the longest.

Editor’s Note
This is an excerpt from a longer article that will appear in issue number 10 of the on-paper edition of CounterFact Magazine. Those interested in placing a pre-release discounted order for issue 10 should go here:

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Soviet Nuclear Strike Plans & Their Possible Legacy Today, by Gilberto Villahermosa

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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