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The War Nerd April 8, 2005
A Sea of Rusting Tanks
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

If you're anything like me, you probably spent a lot of the 80s imagining what would happen if the big NATO-Warsaw Pact war in Central Europe came along. It's still hard for me to believe sometimes that the whole showdown just faded away without a shot fired.

Back in Reagan's day, everybody was dreaming about High Noon at the Fulda Gap, and reading what-if novels like The Third World War, by a British general, John Hackett, or Clancy's Red Storm Rising. (By the way, Hackett's book is still the best of the lot, if you ask me. He's got a bigger picture, covering everything from South Africa to the NW Atlantic, and he doesn't shy away from harsh stuff like English cities being wiped out in a Soviet first strike. Red Storm Rising is a fun, fast read but like I've said before, I'm not much of a Clancy fan. He's a hardware geek, no grasp of strategy, and a lying pig to boot.)

After the Soviets went out of business, I thought we'd get some really solid info on what the Warsaw Pact forces had planned, especially what their nuke and irregular forces (SpetzNaz teams) had in mind in the way of first strike and sabotage. Probably "we" did, meaning the intel community. But whatever they got, they didn't pass along much of it to us civilians out there.

Well, a reader named Dima Sverin just sent me a (translated) interview with ex-Soviet general Matvey Burlakov, the last commander of the Soviet Southern and Western Forces, HQ'd in Hungary. Burlakov was a "Colonel-General," a very, very high rank, and in this interview with a Russian newspaper he pretty much spills all, as far as I can tell.

There's some great stuff. In fact he sounds like a great old guy. I've heard from some guys who've worked with the Russian officer corps that they're pretty cool guys, mostly, ready to drink you under the table and talk strategy non-stop while you're lying there. The only problem is if you're a Russian conscript-then officers don't seem so cool anymore, which might explain why the conscripts go AWOL every week in Russia, shooting up half their barracks before being hunted down themselves.

The first thing you notice about Burlakov's interview is how much the Soviets relied on tanks. When he talks about the war, the way it could've happened, he talks tanks: "The height of the Cold War was the early 1980s. All they [the Soviet leaders] had to do was give the signal and everything would have gone off. Everything was battle-ready. The shells were in the tanks. They just had to be loaded and fired."

If you get the impression the General was pretty confident about his chances, you're right. He says if the Soviet leaders had just given the word, "We would have burned and destroyed everything they [NATO] had."

After he says that, it's like Burlakov gets a little nervous that he might be sounding too aggressive, because he adds, "I mean military targets, not civilians."

Now that bit, about how they wouldn't have targeted civilians, is classic bullshit. A huge conventional war in Germany would have killed millions of civilians, no matter how you war-gamed it. But I'm inclined to believe the old general when he says the Soviet tank armies would've kicked ass. The NATO forces were in a hopeless deployment: jammed into West Germany, an indefensible strip of heavily-populated territory. No strategic depth available, meaning the advantage was with whoever struck first. Once the population realized the Russians were coming, every Beemer and Merc in Germany would have hit the roads, those same roads our tanks were supposed to use. In that chaos, the Bundeswehr would have dissolved into a bunch of terrified locals looking for their families.

Burlakov is not too respectful, to put it mildly, about the West German military: "We had a sea of tanks on the [Soviet] Western Group. Three tank armies! And what did the [West] Germans have? The [German] workweek ends Friday and then you wouldn't find anyone, not a minister or a soldier. Just guards. By the time they realized what was happening, we would have burned up their tanks and looted their armories."

There you see it again, that obsession with tanks. The conventional wisdom right now is that the MBT's day is ending, but luckily we never saw what would happen if those three tank armies had poured through the Fulda Gap on some fine Sunday morning. (You definitely get the feeling that the plan involved attacking on a weekend, don't you?) With Soviet soldiers at the controls, and Soviet air support limiting USAF missions, a T-72 would have been a totally different machine from the Arab-crewed junkers littering the Middle East.

Of course it all depended on striking first. So would the Soviet Army have sucker-punched us? Burlakov says, "Of course! What else? Wait for them to strike us?"

The journalist asks again, like just to make sure: "We [the Soviets] would have struck first?" and the General says again, "Of course!"

And he makes it real clear that he's not just talking about conventional first strikes. The interviewer says, "But [Soviet] Foreign Minister Gromyko said that the USSR would not use nuclear weapons first!"

I love Burlakov's answer: "He said one thing and we [the Soviet staff] thought another. We are the ones responsible for wars."

One of the funnier bits is Burlakov explaining what R&R meant for Soviet soldiers serving in Socialist Hungary. As some of you guys probably know, the Soviet Army (and the Russian one now) don't exactly believe in coddling their soldiers. No unions like the Dutch allow, no PX and Mickey D's like we give them. By all accounts, being a private in a Russian army is a lot like being in maximum security, only the food isn't as good. Burlakov sounds like he's almost proud of the way he kept his cannon fodder under control: "We practically didn't let them [Soviet soldiers] into the towns in Hungary. A tour of Budapest and then back to the barracks! We were afraid...our soldiers might have done something bad."

I'm not sure what "something bad" means but since I've heard that Soviet recruits often went months without even seeing a woman, I can imagine. Maybe somebody should send a copy of that policy to the US commander on Okinawa. Might solve some of our PR problems with the locals.

As long as he's talking about the Soviet war plan, Burlakov is downright cheery. But when the interviewer starts making him describe how it all fell apart after Gorbachev took over, he starts sounding like a bitter old man.

He's still so shocked at Gorbachev's withdrawal of Soviet forces from Europe that he says somebody was drugging Gorbachev: "They [I have no idea who he means by 'they'] fed him something, they brought him a cup of something like tea with milk..." Of course that sounds like paranoid crap, but you can see why Burlakov would have to invent a story like that to explain Gorbachev's backdown. In fact Burlakov seems to be aware that he needs to invent a "they" and a spiked tea, because nothing else makes sense for why Gorbachev up and surrendered the way he did.

Poor old Burlakov, watching his baby, this incredible "sea of tanks," just rot away because the politicians won't give the order to attack. It happens to most generals; it's a lucky one who ever gets to use the army he helped build. Watching it all crumble without a fight-that's gotta be one of the roughest ways for a general to end his career.

I mean obviously it's a GOOD thing, in the long run, that the nuke Super Bowl everybody was planning for didn't happen. I understand that. But it's gotta be tough to spend your whole life planning the one big push, and then, when you're sure you could win and you're just waiting for the green flag, something goes wrong on the home front, and suddenly your sea of tanks is effectively destroyed as a war-fighting force. Without firing a shot.

That's where you see how generals don't actually have that much power after all. Burlakov may woof, talking about how "we," the generals and not the pols, "are responsible for war." But his pitiful end shows how not true that is. Like he says, "everything was ready." But without somebody to give that green light, the best tank is just scrap metal.

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Gary Brecher
Browse author
Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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