"Planning for the Unplannable," by Vojtech Mastny
The 1964 Soviet plan for the invasion of western Europe, which inaugurates the PHP website, is the first war plan from the era of the NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation that has come to light thus far from either side. It is the 'real thing' - the actual blueprint for war at the height of the nuclear era, spelling out in detail the assignments and expectations of the "Czechoslovak Front" of forces of the Soviet coalition.
Earlier American plans have been published, and from the Soviet side we now have at least one earlier plan - the Polish document from 1951, included here for comparison. The PHP has also acquired hundreds of pages of documents on military exercises of the Warsaw Pact - though not yet of NATO - since the 1960s, mainly from the former East German and Czechoslovak archives. Such documents are illustrative of the alternatives that were being considered in anticipation of war, but the plan itself is unique in showing what the command actually wanted to do if war came.
We have further evidence about the thinking that underlay the military planning of of both alliances from other sources. Among them, the confidential account of the Soviet military doctrine by the chief of Soviet military intelligence Gen. Petr I. Ivashutin stands out because of its explicitness. Contemporary to the 1964 plan, it was prepared for Marshal Matvei V. Zakharov, at that time the head of the Soviet General Staff Academy. Portions of this revealing document were copied from the Russian military archives by late Gen. Dmitrii Volkogonov and included in his papers subsequently donated by his family to the Library of Congress in Washington.
The Ivashutin's study, whose most important parts are published here for the first time as well, assumed that:
NATO's defensive preparations were a sham,
only a swift offensive operation could guarantee success for the Warsaw Pact,
the operation was feasible regardless of Europe's nuclear devastation,
technically superior Soviet air defenses could destroy incoming NATO missiles before these could cause unacceptable damage,
the Soviet Union could prevail in a war because of the West's greater vulnerability to nuclear devastation.
The war plan is introduced and analyzed by PHP associate Petr Luňák, who discovered it in the Central Military Archives in Prague while conducting research there for the Project in February 2000. Added is his interview about it with Col. Karel Štěpánek, who served in the Czechoslovak army's operations room at the time the plan was valid. Comments by other important witnesses of the time have been requested and will be put online as soon as they have been received.
In trying to make sense of these extraordinary relics of the Cold War, today's reader might wonder whether the plan for unleashing a nuclear inferno in Europe could possibly have been meant seriously. What were the chances of its being implemented and what message does it contain for us in our contemporary security environment which, though happily different, still includes a profusion of nuclear weapons as the Cold War's most durable and disconcerting legacy. The following observations suggest answers to these questions.
How Serious Was the Plan?
There is no reason to doubt that the plan was meant to be implemented in case of war - as were similar U.S. and NATO plans for massive use of nuclear weapons of whose existence we know. The weapons were on hand and the command structure necessary to make them fly, in this instance the Soviet general staff and its subsidiaries, was also in place, ready to push the buttons if the political leadership gave the appropriate signal. Throughout the Cold War, both sides consistently assumed that the action that would trigger the signal would be aggression by the other.
There was an important difference, however, between NATO and Soviet preparations. The Western alliance anticipated fighting mainly on its own territory, with but diversionary strikes behind the advancing enemy forces in order to slow them down and eventually stop them. For its part, the Warsaw Pact envisaged a massive thrust deep into Western Europe after the putative NATO invaders had been quickly brought to a halt, and forced to retreat in disarray.
The fact that the Soviet Union and its allies not only accused NATO publicly of aggressive intentions but also took those intentions for granted in their most secret assessments has been something of a revelation once the archives of the former Warsaw Pact countries began to open their doors as a result of the fall of communism in 1989-91. Their assumption that the war would start with a Western surprise attack was mainly justified in Marxist-Leninist terms by the implacable hostility of an inherently 'imperialistic' capitalist system. This was but one illustration of the sway ideology continued to hold over leaders whom many Westerners wishfully came to regard as 'normal' practitioners of power politics, presiding over a state like any other.
The Soviet generals, however, were no fools. They knew well enough that NATO was preparing for a defense against them. But they were so mesmerized by their still vivid memories of the very nearly successful German surprise attack on their country in 1941 that they could not imagine any other reliable strategy than that of striking at the enemy before he could strike at them. In fairness to them, it should be noted that this was the same strategy NATO was trying to develop to fend off the dreaded Soviet surprise attack, although it never figured out how this could be done without launching a pre-emptive strike, which the alliance was structurally unable to do even if it wanted to. The difference between the two strategies was on the ground - the Soviet unabashedly offensive, the Western unavoidably defensive.
Not only did the Soviet and the Western strategies differ but also the Soviet plans varied at different times. The 1951 plan for Poland, drawn up at a time when Soviet marshal Konstantin K. Rokossovskii served as Poland's minister of defense, differed significantly from the 1964 plan for Czechoslovakia. Ironically at a time when NATO was haunted by the nightmare of armed communist hordes sweeping all but unopposed through Europe, the 1951 plan was unequivocally defensive. Taking Western readiness to invade for granted - by Stalin's lights not a wholly unreasonable retaliation for the invasion of South Korea he had sponsored the year before, especially since advancing Western forces were likely to be received in eastern Europe as liberators - the plan sought to contain rather than exploit the enemy invasion. Its authors had peculiar misconceptions about the Allied forces - their use of the not yet existing West German army, their amphibious equipment supposedly kept ready ever since the 1944 Normandy landings. The overestimation by each side of the other's capabilities was remarkable though understandable, given the limitations of intelligence gathering and the extreme mutual hostility at the time.
If Stalin was reluctant to entrust his satellite armies with any but defensive tasks in a war he could hardly believe he could win, the 1964 Czechoslovak plan shows how drastically the situation had changed a decade later. The Soviet Union had been catching up with the United States in the possession of strategic nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, while NATO had been catching up with the Warsaw Pact in building up its conventional forces, backed by an array of tactical nuclear weapons. And, in contrast to the previous wild guesses, both sides were now in a position to know the other's order of battle fairly accurately.
Yet precisely because of this knowledge, the discrepancy between the assumptions underlying the 1964 Warsaw Pact plan and the contemporaneous NATO planning is striking. While the Soviet generals came to believe they could take Lyon within two weeks of the outbreak of hostilities, their NATO counterparts had by this time become confident of being able to stem the Warsaw Pact advance already near West Germany's eastern borders rather than, as previously, along the Rhine, the English Channel, or the Pyrenees, if at all.
Such sharp difference in expectations makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in estimating what would happen after nuclear weapons had been dropped, neither side really knew what it was talking about. The plan of operations against western Europe did not even consider the possibility of the Soviet Union being simultaneously paralyzed by American strategic strikes. The reasoning of Soviet generals may have been cruder but not any less fanciful than the seemingly sophisticated calculations of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his 'whiz kids,' who pretended to know how to micromanage a nuclear war toward a satisfactory conclusion at an acceptable cost.
Ivashutin's study of the "art of war under the conditions of a thermonuclear war according to the current notions" is the most revealing internal account we have so far of the philosophy that underlay Soviet strategy. Sent to the head of the General Staff Academy at his request, the material was probably meant to be used in the school's courses for high-ranking military officers. The argumentative language of the document, replete with references to the Western press and statements by Western officials, shows a desire to justify Soviet strategy to insiders expected to implement it.
Accordingly, the author goes into extraordinary contortions to insist that the West's defensive posture is a sham, alleging that "by no means are NATO forces preparing for defense." Its command presumably figures that after its nuclear first strike "its troops would immediately be able to rush deep into the territory of the socialist countries." Yet these advancing troops, according to the Soviet scenario, will have already "suffered enormous losses from [Soviet] nuclear strikes, which means that at the very beginning of the operation there may be mutual encounters in several directions," not excluding the possibility that "enemy forces will conduct defensive operations."
Not only does the document use specious reasoning to show that the Warsaw Pact's offensive strategy is right but it also adduces specious evidence of the presumed superiority of Soviet arms to convince skeptics that the strategy is feasible. It makes the unwarranted assumption that most of the incoming enemy missiles could be destroyed before causing unacceptable damage. Handwritten marginal notes on the text seem to indicate that its recipient, Marshal Zakharov, was himself skeptical. Yet the self-confident tone of this product of the nation's presumably best informed military man hardly leaves a doubt that the strategic design it outlined was intended to be applied, as was the 1964 war plan.
The design presupposed that the detonation of an undetermined number of nuclear warheads by both belligerents would not prevent Warsaw Pact troops from marching unscathed through the wasteland while on the home front the surviving civilians, if there were any, continued going about their daily business fit enough to help bring the war to a victorious conclusion. Believing in fighting a war according to such a blueprint was believing in fairy tales. Yet people do believe in fairy tales and sometimes even act upon them until it might be too late.
How Likely Was the Plan To Be Acted Upon?
The 1964 plan did not appear out of nowhere. It was an outgrowth of the 1958-62 Berlin crisis, which is now understood to have been much more serious than its apparent defusion after the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 previously seemed to suggest. Other archival documents obtained by the PHP show that the crisis prompted the Soviet Union to start preparing for the military confrontation that might result from its decision to conclude a separate peace treaty with East Germany - a measure which would have denied the Allies the right of access to the western part of the city. Even after the construction of the Berlin Wall, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev allowed his subordinates to proceed on the assumption that such a treaty would be signed, although eventually he shelved the idea as not worth the risk.
Once started, however, the intensified planning for a war in Europe continued - as did tension between Khrushchev and the Soviet military as a result of his drastic reductions of conventional forces, which cost many officers their jobs. The tradition-bound military did not share Khrushchev's belief in the adequacy of nuclear weapons in waging war or his reliance upon such weapons not only to deter war but also to score political points through diplomatic pressure or even blackmail. Obedient though Russian generals always were to their country's autocratic rulers, they nevertheless proceeded to map out operations in which conventional forces would play a secondary role to massive nuclear strikes in bringing about a quick victory, thus trying to adapt theory to reality or, as it were, reality to theory. The 1964 plan is an authentic specimen of that exertion.
As a result of the Berlin confrontation that Khrushchev had gratuitously provoked and then mishandled, his earlier efforts at "demilitarizing" the Cold War were reversed. The war plans that were drawn up did not by themselves make their implementation more likely; preparing for the worst is the business of the military anywhere. What did make Soviet planning more worrisome than Western planning was Khrushchev's more casual handling of nuclear weapons than was the case with his Western counterparts. The weapons were part of "a game which no one will win" but which could be played so that the other side "would talk to us," he had explained to a secret gathering of Polish communists as he was about to unleash the Berlin crisis in 1958. He seemed unaware that the game was also one in which everyone could lose, until his attempted deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba - in 1962 - not only the medium-range kind that the Americans discovered at the time but also the then undiscovered tactical nuclear weapons ready to be fired had the U.S. invaded the island - threatened an unprecedented disaster.
The Soviet leader, though an impetuous man, was not a reckless one, and he learned the lesson. Yet the 1964 plan was completed after Cuba - at a time Khrushchev was bent on accommodating the West by concluding the partial test ban treaty and perhaps even proceeding in the direction Gorbachev would take quarter of a century later. Just what exactly would have made the plan operational is not easy to imagine for outsiders but, as evident from the authoritative Ivashutin document expressing the thinking behind it, was certainly imaginable to people led to believe by their doctrine in the ultimate incompatibility of capitalism and socialism.
By the time Ivashutin's study had been completed, its core concept of a war conducted and won mainly by nuclear weapons had become increasingly controversial in the Soviet Union. It had been disputed between Khrushchev, who used it in support of further reductions of Soviet conventional forces, and those within the Soviet military who, wedded to the more traditional 'combined arms' concept, opposed the reductions on both professional grounds and as demoralizing for the officer corps. Veiled criticism of Khrushchev's ideas emanated particularly from the General Staff Academy, which he consequently wanted to abolish. In the same month that the Academy received Ivashutin's study, Khrushchev reaffirmed his line by dismantling the separate command of the ground forces and a month later by scathing public criticism of the utility of tanks in warfare.
Without further documentation about the origins of Ivashutin's paper, we cannot reliably determine how it fits into this tug of war between Khrushchev and his generals. Why did Marshal Zakharov, who had become the head of the academy slated for abolition after he had lost his more important job as the Chief of General Staff, commission the document in the first place? It conveyed Khrushchevian notions about the supremacy of nuclear over conventional war that the marshal did not share. Was his commissioning the exposition of an unworkable strategy somehow related to the subsequent overthrow of Khrushchev, with decisive support by the military, which then allowed Zakharov to resume his former position as the Chief of General Staff? These are some of the questions that can only be answered by complementing the PHP documents with the still inaccessible records from Russian military archives.
Khrushchev was overthrown on the very day the plan for the offensive of the Czechoslovak 'front' was formally approved -- 14 October 1964. His ouster cast doubt upon the plan's continued validity during the subsequent period when the strategy it embodied was replaced by that which assigned conventional forces more important place in conducting the war in Europe and possibly winning it without the use of nuclear weapons. This was the same goal, though independently arrived at, as that of the U.S. strategy of 'flexible response,' which had been widely discussed since the early 1960s before being finally adopted by NATO in December 1967. It may thus seem that common sense was beginning to prevail on both sides, causing the threat of Europe's nuclear devastation to recede. Unfortunately, however, this was not necessarily the case.
In the second half of the 1960s, the Czechoslovak command voiced to Moscow its growing misgivings about a strategy that spelled the the obliteration of not only the country's army but, because of its geography, also the country itself. The Soviet General Staff therefore became more reluctant to entrust to the Czechoslovaks an important role in the prospective march on Lyon, and after the 1968 'Prague Spring' had to suspend their role altogether because of the effective disintegration of their army as a fighting force. But the concept of waging war in Europe with massive use of nuclear weapons did not disintegrate; it remained an inegral part of the Warsaw Pact's as well as of NATO's strategy until the end of the Cold War. And regardless of the concept's dubious feasibility, the ostensibly more 'realistic' plans for using conventional forces in a 'limited' war made the chain of events leading toward a nuclear holocaust more rather than less likely.
Although the planning of both alliances in the 1970s and 1980s increasingly envisaged a war in Europe without resort to nuclear arms, it did not preclude the use of such arms. Whereas Western strategists tried to maintain the fiction of being able to control nuclear escalation, their Soviet counterparts were rightly skeptical that this was possible, yet were nevertheless more prone to risk the escalation. As the extensive records of the exercises of the East German army show particularly well, the Warsaw Pact kept practicing the thrust into western Europe, with or without nuclear weapons, in ever greater detail, the perfectionist East Germans even printing in advance occupation currency and preparing new street signs with congenial names.
Although the hypothetical NATO attack remained on paper the necessary trigger of the war, the part of the exercises devoted to repelling it became an increasingly perfunctory ritual. In fact, in attributing to NATO a readiness to launch a 'surprise' attack with grossly inadequate, even inferior forces, the artifical scenario was sometimes so ludicrous that hardly any general in his right mind would consider it. The Warsaw Pact's preparations for offensive warfare at a time when the Kremlin was not only preaching détente but also regarding it to be in its own best interest were all the more disconcerting since the Soviet command was far better informed than before about NATO's true intentions and capabilities. The proficient East German spies, among others, saw to that.
If none of the latter-day variations on the 1964 plan was ever put into effect, this was not for any lack of preparation by believers in 'realistic' planning. The Soviet military had much more room for doing what they considered appropriate for purely military reasons during the Brezhnev 'era of stagnation' than under the tighter rein of Khrushchev, not to speak of Stalin. The new developments that finally rendered their plans obsolete were coming from the West rather than from the Kremlin, and concerned not so much the all but discredited utility of the nuclear weaponry as the rediscovered utility of conventional forces of the kind the Soviet Unions did not have.
The acquisition by NATO of high-performance conventional military technology which the Soviet Union could not hope to match made a radical reassessment of its standard assumptions about the efficacy of 'offensive defense' all but inevitable. Simultaneously, the Western strategists' increasingly esoteric and contrived assumptions about war in a political vacuum simply became meaningless as the Cold War petered out for reasons unrelated to the calculations of military balance. The superpower confrontation was first defused because of the Soviet system's progressing internal paralysis, and then disappeared altogether along with the division of Europe into hostile blocs. But nuclear weapons have not disappeared from the world, not even from Europe, nor has NATO followed the Warsaw Pact into oblivion, thus giving the plans of the defunct alliance an abiding relevance.
What Do the Documents Tell Us Today?
A sobering conclusion to be drawn from the records of the Warsaw Pact concerns the validity of the concept of nuclear deterrence - the centerpiece of Western strategy during the Cold War. None of the documents we have gives an indication that the Soviet military planners considered themselves deterred by the West's nuclear arsenals. They were beholden to the fallacy that one could plan for a winnable nuclear war. If they nevertheless did not act upon this misconception, this was ultimately because their political superiors did not have any more intention than their Western counterparts to start a war. Whether the mere existence of nuclear weapons was the main reason for their restraint has been debatable and is likely to remain so.
The 1964 documents show, however, that the vast nuclear arsenals of both superpowers were not only useless for fighting war - as was later generally accepted - but also not necessary to deter war - as some people still insist they were and are. On the contrary, their possession in quantities defying common sense had the effect of skewing strategy in dangerously fanciful directions, making sound planning for real-life contingencies of the post-Cold War era - humanitarian intervention, peacekeeping - difficult if not impossible. Accordingly, the further dismantling of the still vast American and Russian nuclear stockpiles makes sense, among other excellent reasons, because it helps restore proportionality between any conceivable military aims and the means employed toward their attainment. For that purpose, however, even the residual 1,500 or so nuclear weapons the two countries want to keep as allegedly indispensable for their security are far too many to make a clean break with the mentality exemplified by the 1964 documents, whose futility is now so obvious.
Similarly the nonproliferation and nuclear test ban treaties are steps in the right direction since they foster the awareness of the dubious benefits of nuclear armaments and of the wisdom of proceeding toward deliberate policies to ensure their obsolescence. Very small numbers of the weapons are sufficient to keep the probability of their being used in a surprise attack correspondingly small. If the record of the Cold War and its aftermath is an indication, modern conventional forces - and the willingness to use them - provide much more reliable protection against this and an array of more probable security threats. In the war over Kosovo, NATO demonstrated how effective such forces can be - and how unprepared it was to use them.
Reflecting on the legacy of the Cold War makes obvious the merits of a mainly non--nuclear NATO, operating in a pre-nuclear fashion though with post-nuclear technology. But it also highlights the merits of the Partnership for Peace, with its innovative formula of giving both friends and potential adversaries the opportunity to cooperate in military matters as much or as little as they find it to be in their best interest. These are the ways of preventing the rise of such disastrous misconceptions as those which the documents inaugurating our website convey so eloquently.
VOJTECH MASTNY, the PHP coordinator, is Senior Research Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Senior Fellow at the National Security Archive, both in Washington, D.C. He has been Professor of History and International Relations at Columbia University, University of Illinois, Boston University, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, as well as Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and the first Manfred Wörner Fellow of NATO. His most recent book, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity, is the winner of the American Historical Association's 1997 George L. Beer Prize.
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