Almost catastrophic misjudgements

by Ralph Bosshard

In these times, one hears again and again at NATO congresses “The bear is roaring again” – the bear is roaring again – when Russia is mentioned. There is no shorter way to express the blatant misjudgement of Russia. When the image of the aggressive predator is accompanied by a reference to the bear’s claws in the form of weapons systems and truncheons, older comrades feel reminded of Cold War propaganda. The image is no truer today than it was then.

Propaganda versus sober assessment of the situation

In the years after Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet head of state and party leader Nikita Khrushchev launched the idea of “peaceful coexistence”. With this he took up the idea of the former Soviet foreign minister Georgi Chicherin who had initiated the rapprochement of the Soviet Union with the West European states under this maxim in the 1920s and who prepared the entry of the Soviet Union into the League of Nations.1 Khrushchev did not intend to proclaim eternal peace, but rather announced the decision to fight the class struggle with the NATO states by other than military means. This was unavoidable from an ideological point of view. Meanwhile, the war of the secret services and the proxy wars outside Europe raged on unhindered. To dismiss “peaceful coexistence” as a mere propaganda show is therefore just as wrong as drawing a direct line to military operational planning in Central Europe, as a report by the German Bundestag’s Scientific Service attempted to do in 2015.2 It is revealing that this study of the military doctrine of the Soviet Union and that of the Russian Federation since the 1970s does not use a single Russian-language source, consistently misspells the name of the former Soviet Chief of General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov and speaks of the Red Army, which had been called the Soviet Army since 1946.
  Between military doctrine and operational planning lies, among other things, military situation assessment. On the basis of its assessment of the situation, the Soviet General Staff came to the conclusion after 1955 that, in view of the military strength of the newly founded Warsaw Treaty Organisation (WTO), war between the West and the socialist bloc was no longer inevitable.3 Together, the allies were strong enough to stand up to NATO. This distinguishes the situation at the time from today, in which NATO is massively superior to Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in conventional terms (see box below).4
  The WTO’s operational planning for a case of war in Central Europe referred to the worst conceivable case that NATO for some reason wished to end peaceful coexistence. The WTO always reckoned with the assumption that the West, outnumbered in the conventional field, would open aggression with nuclear weapons. The Swiss military historian Rudolf Fuhrer, after reviewing the operational plans and exercise scenarios in the archives of the former WTO states, stated that the initial situation had always been formulated in such a way that a comprehensive nuclear weapons strike against the GDR and the ČSSR had taken place and that a counter-attack against NATO would have to be launched as quickly as possible.5 The experience of the final phase of the Second World War and the Great Patriotic War had given rise to the Soviet doctrine that after repelling an aggression, hostilities should be continued until the enemy had lost the ability and motivation to continue the war.
  Unlike Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev was convinced of the practicality of nuclear weapons and accordingly instructed the Chiefs of Staff of the Soviet Army, Marshal Matwei Sakharov and Marshal Sergei Biryuzov6 to modernise and downsize the army. Khrushchev may have felt confirmed in his view by the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis, of which he considered himself the victor. In future, the decisive component in a war against the West was to be the counterattack with nuclear weapons, which had to be carried out immediately after NATO’s nuclear first strike. In this phase, the army troops would fight a border battle.7 The aim of the counterattack on the ground thereafter had to be to eliminate West Germany as a deployment area for NATO nuclear and conventional forces. In other words, if NATO had attacked the WTO states, the Soviet army would have devastated West Germany.

NATO Forward Strategy and nuclear weapons

The belief in the usability of nuclear strikes also prevailed in the West. In the final phase of his term in office, US President Eisenhower commissioned the revision of the operational plans of the US armed forces and their consolidation into a single operational plan, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)8.
  Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, was not satisfied with the only option left to him by SIOP-62, namely to initiate a global nuclear war. He called for a whole range of other options, which ultimately led to the concept of “flexible response”.9 If, as a result of NATO’s conventional weakness, a US president had been forced to order the use of nuclear weapons just a few days after the outbreak of war, then this concept would in fact have been undermined. It remained controversial whether it would be possible to limit a war waged with tactical-operational nuclear weapons and to avoid an escalation into a global nuclear war (see box).
  While the WTO expected a nuclear first strike by NATO and an offensive into East Germany and Czechoslovakia, NATO only felt strong enough to take up defence at the Iron Curtain, i.e., at the German-German border. The Weser-Lech line was defined as the main line of defence. There was no talk of an offensive into the GDR or the USSR. However, NATO considered moving its nuclear artillery so far east that it could destroy targets in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.10 The culmination of the belief in the usefulness of nuclear weapons was the introduction of the smoothbore gun “Davy Crockett” in the US Army, with which a group of five soldiers could shoot a nuclear weapon over a distance of 2 to 4 km.11 Furthermore, nuclear mines played a significant role in defence planning on West German soil at the time.
  Nuclear weapons also retained their importance in the operational plans of the WTO. According to current operational procedures, conventional forces were to take advantage of the resulting chaos after a nuclear strike and advance as quickly as possible. The extremely optimistic assumptions regarding the speed of advance of ground forces, as found in operational plans and exercise scenarios, can only be explained by nuclear weapons strikes. At 100 km per day, this is three to four times higher than today’s planning assumptions.12 The fact that the military in the WTO was itself sceptical about such optimistic scenarios was shown by the Czech historian Peter Luňák in his study of the operational plan of the Czechoslovak People’s Army from 1964. It is precisely this operational plan, which the Swiss military historian Rudolf Fuhrer does not see as an exercise scenario but as part of a hitherto undiscovered “master plan” of the Soviet general staff, that testifies to the belief in the usefulness of nuclear weapons in a war in Central Europe.

Nervousness at the Iron Curtain

One of several measures with which the leadership of the Soviet Army tried to convince NATO of the hopelessness of an attack was the permanently high readiness of the troops: At any given time, 85% of the troops in the GDR and the ČSSR had to be available in the garrisons.13 The leadership of the Soviet Army apparently did not understand for a long time – or ignored corresponding Western fears – that this permanent high readiness was seen as a threat in the West. NATO, on the other hand, assumed that the Soviet Union intended to extend its sphere of influence to all European countries by means of a nuclear war throughout the Cold War.

Dangers of current misjudgements

With NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence decided in 2016, a situation has arisen on the western border of the Republic of Belarus that increasingly resembles that on the inner-German border during the Cold War.14 After a new camp was built a few weeks ago on the Lithuanian military training area of Pabradè – just 8 km from the Belarusian border – which allows the permanent stationing of a US tank battalion, another NATO tank battalion will be added in the next few weeks.15 The certification exercise “IRON WOLF II-2021” of the mixed German-Dutch tank battalion 414 is in fact not to take place at the battalion’s actual location in Rukla, but from mid to late October at the Pabradè training area.16 The aim of the exercise is “combat readiness”. Such a stationing close to the border, however, requires the presence of reconnaissance and security elements right up to the state border. Not to do so would be negligent from a military point of view. This, in turn, will force the Republic of Belarus to station a battalion combat group that can monitor the border area and at least fight with restraint. The times when alarm elements of a US tank regiment were permanently on standby in the so-called “Fulda Gap” during the Cold War are now probably returning in Lithuania.17 One phenomenon, however, is new: In the last few weeks and months, a large number of refugees have been heading from Belarus towards the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, the outskirts of which are just 30 km from Pabradè.18 This had not happened on the German-German border.
  Poland wants to station a US division on its territory in addition to its own four tank divisions.19 The capital Warsaw is located in the east and on one of the country’s most significant terrain obstacles, namely the Vistula. In the event of increased tensions, this location will make it necessary to move all these troops to the east and thus to the border area with Belarus. In the course of a crisis, escalation is thus ensured from the outset.


Even if the belief in the usefulness of nuclear weapons in land operations is no longer as steadfast today as it was during the Cold War, and conventional weapons are now able to replace operational-tactical nuclear weapons to a certain extent, the developments of recent years nevertheless give cause for concern. The instruments for reviewing military activities, some of which date back to the Cold War era, have been abolished or eroded in recent years. The USA played a decisive role in this, but Germany was not entirely innocent either, as it played a leading role in the misuse of the so-called Vienna Document in connection with the conflict in Ukraine (see box below). It is difficult to understand why NATO undermined the existing verification regime in parallel with the consultations on Enhanced Forward Presence.
  The misjudgment of the adversary’s respective intentions conjured up the danger of nuclear devastation in Central Europe during the Cold War. This danger will arise again in Belarus, Poland and the Baltic States if propaganda and fear-mongering displace a sober view of the actual circumstances. It is to be hoped that sober-minded heads will prevail. But hope is not part of military assessment; an effective system of verification of military activities beyond national and alliance borders, on the other hand, is.  •

1 for definition see: Leonhard, Wolfgang. “Koexistenz, eine Form des Klassenkampfes” (Coexistence, a form of class struggle), in: Die Zeit of 5 February 1960, online at On the foreign policy of the Soviet Union see Blasius, Rainer. “Des Teufels Botschafter. In London erlebte Iwan Maiski von 1932 bis 1943 fünf Premierminister und drei Könige, traf sich mit Schriftstellergrössen wie George Bernard Shaw und H. G. Wells” (The Devil’s Ambassador. In London from 1932 to 1943, Ivan Maiski experienced five prime ministers and three kings, met with literary greats such as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells), in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 20 September 2016, p. 8. On Litvinov see Cf. Brenner, Gerd. “Zweifrontenkrieg um Russlands Ressourcen” (Two-front war about Russia’s resources), in: World Economy of 4 June 2020, online
2 see Wissenschaftliche Dienste des Deutschen Bundestags: Die Militärdoktrinen der Sowjetunion und der Russischen Föderation seit den 1970er Jahren, Bedrohungsszenarien und Sprache im Vergleich (Scientific Services of the German Bundestag: The military doctrines of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation since the 1970s, Threat scenarios and language in comparison), preparation WD 2 – 3000 – 052/15, 26 March 2015, online, especially p. 7f.
3 Referred to in the West as Warsaw Pact WaPa. See Wissenschaftliche Dienste: Die Militärdoktrinen (Scientific Services: The military doctrines), loc. cit. p. 5
4 There is no doubt at all about the defence expenditure, where the USA alone is far ahead of all other countries: See also Global Power Index, especially the comparison between the USA and Russia:
5 see Fuhrer, Hans-Rudolf. “Alle Roten Pfeile kamen aus Osten – zu Recht?” (All the Red Arrows came from the East – rightly so?), in: Military Power Review of the Swiss Armed Forces no. 2/2012, p. 50, online at
6 see and
7 The operational plans of the 5th Army of the NVA, in particular, are worked out in detail by Lautsch, Siegfried. “Geheime Planungen der Nationalen Volksarmee der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik in den 1980er Jahren” (Secret plans of the National People’s Army of the German Democratic Republic in the 1980s), in: ÖMZ, online Id. “Zur Planung realer Angriffs- und Verteidigungsoperationen im Warschauer Pakt, dargestellt am Beispiel der operativen Planung der 5. Armee der Nationalen Volksarmee der DDR im Kalten Krieg (1983 bis 1986)” (On the planning of real offensive and defensive operations in the Warsaw Pact, illustrated by the example of the operational planning of the 5th Army of the National People’s Army of the GDR in the Cold War (1983 to 1986)), in: Military Power Review of the Swiss Armed Forces – no. 2/2011, pp. 20-33, online at Id. “Kämpfen können, um nicht kämpfen zu müssen, operatives Denken im Selbstverständnis der NVA der DDR in den 1980er Jahren am Beispiel der Operativen Planungen des Militärbezirks V, Zeitzeugenbericht und militärwissenschaftlicher Beitrag” (Being able to fight in order not to have to fight, operational thinking in the self-image of the NVA of the GDR in the 1980s using the example of the operational planning of Military District V, eyewitness account and military science contribution), online On this also: Sass, Jakob. “Wie die NVA die Bundesrepublik erobern wollte” (How the NVA wanted to conquer the Federal Republic), in: Die Welt of 28 August 2013, online at
8 For an overview see: HQ Strategic Air Command, History and Research Division: History of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, Background and Preparation of SIOP-62, online at Cf. Burr, William. “The Creation of SIOP-62, more Evidence on the Origins of Overkill”, in: National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book no. 130, online Sagan, Scott D. “SIOP-62: The Nuclear War Plan Briefing to President Kennedy”, in: International Security, Vol. 12, no. 1 (Summer, 1987), p. 22–51, online
9 In addition, there was the doctrine of the “2½ Kriege” (Two-and-a-half-wars), which meant that the USA had to be able to fight two regional wars at the same time as well as a small war. Cf. Kaplan, Fred. “The Doctrine Gap, Reality vs. the Pentagon’s new strategy”, in: Slate of 6 July 2005, online at
10 see Hammerich, Helmut R. “Süddeutschland als Eckpfeiler der Verteidigung Europas, zu den NATO-Operationsplanungen während des Kalten Krieges” (Southern Germany as a Cornerstone of Europe’s Defence, on NATO Operation Planning during the Cold War), in: Military Power Review of the Swiss Armed Forces, no. 2 /2011, online and
11 For an overview, see Specifically on “Davy Crockett” see; the British counterparts were called “Wee Gwen” and “Low-Yield Tony”,
12 cf. Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact (PHP), Taking Lyon on the Ninth Day? The 1964 Warsaw Pact Plan for a Nuclear War in Europe and Related Documents, PHP Publications Series, Washington D. C., Zurich, 2000, online at, namely the essays by Mastny, Vojtech. Planning for the Unplannable, ebd. p. 2-8 and Luňák, Petr. The Warsaw Pact War Plan of 1964, ibd. p. 9-23
13 see the official NATO information on this: and
14 see “ständige Gefechtsbereitschaft” (permanent combat readiness) in the National People’s Army:; cf. “Wissenschaftliche Dienste: Die Militärdoktrinen” (Scientific Services: The Military Doctrines), loc.cit., p.10
15 Currently, the 3rd Battalion of the 66th Tank Regiment from Fort Riley, Kansas, is stationed in Pabradė. See and
16 see “Ein Stück Bergen in Litauen” (A Piece of Bergen in Lithuania), in: Celle heute of 30 August 2021, online
17 The author saw such alarm elements of an Armoured Cavalry Regiment himself in the FRG in the 1980s.
18 see Rehman, Cedric. “Im Herrgottswinkel” (In the corner of the Lord God), in: Der Freitag, die Wochenzeitung, 36/2021, online at “Die Regierung ist jetzt schon überfordert und versucht verzweifelt, Migranten loszuwerden.” (The government is already overwhelmed and desperately trying to get rid of migrants.)
19 see

Ralph Bosshard studied General History, Eastern European History and Military History, completed the Military Command School of the ETH Zurich and the General Staff Training of the Swiss Army. This was followed by language training in Russian at the Moscow State University and training at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Army. He is familiar with the situation in the South Caucasus from his six years at the OSCE, where he was, among other things, Special Advisor to the Swiss Permanent Representative.

rb. The Vienna Document allows for short-term inspections of military activities in OSCE space. The currently valid version can be found at Confidence- and security-building measures included the Open Skies Agreement, which was cancelled by the USA. The organisation of a permanent NATO presence in Ukraine by NATO constitutes an abuse of the Vienna Document, as do intelligence activities by NATO officers within the OSCE, which the author witnessed himself.

rb. Under Kennedy’s successors Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, various options for action were worked out for the deployment of the US strategic nuclear arsenal. Whether the differentiated plans with various target categories and the retention of reserves would have been recognised as such by the Soviet Union or simply interpreted as massive retaliation remains controversial. However, US President Jimmy Carter in particular demanded that nuclear weapons become an integral part of defence planning in general. This suggests that he, too, had doubts about the limitability of a war in Central Europe.

cf. Gavin, Francis J. “The Myth of Flexible Response: United States Strategy in Europe during the 1960s”, in: The International History Review Vol. 23, No. 4 (Dec. 2001), pp. 847-875, online For a brief overview, see Meyer, Tobias. Flexible Response, online at

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