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.”

Soviet Drive.jpg

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:


Excerpt: Turkey vs. Bulgaria – Strategic Options by Maciej Jonasz

Turkish Options
With two overland avenues of approach and an amphibious one available to the Turks, their options are three – left, center and right.

The left option would see their main advance along Highway A4 to Plovdiv and then on to Sofia from there. The advantage of that approach would be its potential speed. It’s not only the shortest route to Sofia; Highway A4 also provides the easiest route on which to push forces and supplies into the fight. At the same time, though, and for those same reasons, that route would certainly be defended by Bulgaria's best units. Operations there would likely be immediately costly in terms of casualties and equipment wastage.

The center option would see an advance along Route 7 and then, once the Turks reached east-west Highway A1, they would turn left toward Plovdiv and Sofia. The terrain there is more difficult, as the forested hills would channel their advance into a series of potential kill zones. Further, Highway A1 doesn’t have the same capacity to handle traffic as Highway A4. Again, though, for those same reasons, the Bulgarians wouldn’t defend that approach with their best.

The Turks' third option would be to conduct an envelopment of Bulgaria's landward defenses by executing an amphibious operation on the Black Sea coast. Neither the Bulgarian Navy nor Air Force have the assets to stop such an operation, or even to inflict much in the way of losses on the Turks. Nor could the ground force defeat it once the Turkish marines set up a secure beachhead.

The Bulgarians have only enough combat power to defend the two dry land routes into their country from the south and not much more. As Turkish diverisonary attacks in the south would still likely be sufficient to keep some significant portion of the Bulgarian Army busy there, the road to Sofia from the beachhead would be largely open.

As the Turks have sufficient assets for only one amphibious landing, they would need to choose between one at Burgas in the south or one at Varna farther north. Both locations have beaches perfect for landing troops, and both have airports that can be used to ferry in reinforcements and supplies and to evacuate casualties.

An advantage for landing at Burgas is the fact the A1 highway that begins there, runs all the way to Sofia, allowing for rapid movement of troops and supplies. In contrast, the A2 highway, which starts in Varna, goes west for less than a 70 miles, which would mean the rest of that advance would have to be made along regular two-lane roads.

The Burgas option has the disadvantage that, if the Bulgarians were to pull back their forces holding the border area south of there, they would be able to block the A1. If a landing took place at Varna, on the other hand, no withdrawal in the south would likely be able to bring troops into position to block it in a timely way.

Bulgarian Options
The Bulgarians have two options: defend forward or in depth. A forward defense would see both their army brigades blocking the land routes into the country from the south, using the rough terrain near the border to form a series of successive defensive positions. The intent would be to prevent the Turks from capturing significant Bulgarian territory before some kind of outside intervention halted the invasion.

Politically, that’s the best option, as it would force the Turks to fight hard from the moment they crossed the border. If outside intervention came fast enough, the invaders would capture only a small piece of the country, and that would also bring the least harm to Bulgaria's civilian population. At the same time, speedily mounting Turkish casualties might lead to opposition to the war at home.

Even so, this option is risky from a military standpoint and could lead to disaster. That is, given the Turks' crushing superiority, the Bulgarians wouldn’t be able to hold any positions near the border for long. The attackers would punch through, and the Bulgarians would be forced to withdraw under a hail of bombs, rockets and missiles from above. That could deal them such a blow they would be unable to mount effective resistance anywhere else in the country, and the Turks might then complete their conquest with ease. Only if foreign intervention came before the border defense collapsed, or at least before the inevitable retreat from it could be turned into a rout, would this option stand a chance of success.

The second option, defending in depth, is militarily the better one. Here the Bulgarians would pull back into the Balkan mountains to make their stand. Taking advantage of that good defensive terrain, they could hold ground much longer and inflict heavy losses on the attackers. Even in this case, however, the Turks could advance by using vertical envelopment via helicopter assaults and paradrops. Still, this option wouldn’t only cost the Turks more time and blood, the longer the campaign lasted, the greater the chance of foreign intervention.

On the other hand, this option could be a political disaster in that at least a third of the country would speedily come under occupation. Then, if the Turks repeated what they did on Cyprus – ethnic cleansing and the bringing in of settlers – the Bulgarians could see some large portion of their country partitioned out from under them. That might be the “lesser evil,” though, as the same could happen to the whole country if the forward defense was chosen but then collapsed before foreign intervention stopped the invaders.

In the end, the Bulgarians' choice would depend on their estimate of long foreign intervention would take to make itself felt. If quickly, then forward defense would have to be the choice; if slowly, then defense in depth.

Overall, the disparity of forces between Turkey and Bulgaria – not only in quantity, but also in quality – is so large any conflict between the two would be decisively one sided. It would be a conflict the Bulgarians couldn’t win on their own and, at best under present conditions, they could only hope for a Cyprus-style cease-fire and partition of their territory. That would likely be the first step in the subsequent destruction of independent Bulgaria.

The Bulgarians' salvation in case of war can only come in the form of foreign intervention – either military or political. The strength of the Turkish armed forces means a military one would require not only a lot of combat power, but also the acceptance of potentially heavy losses by the intervening nations. They would also face the risk of socio-political turmoil at home from their own Islamic populations. That would likely require more political will than any potential interventionist countries possess.

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: