Seven Days to the River Rhine: the Third World War - a TL

Prologue: The Cold War, 1945-1983.
I've been working on something new for a while and today I feel ready to post the first small piece of this TL. The topic is the outbreak of a Third World War in 1983, escalating into a full nuclear exchange between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Seven Days to the River Rhine: the Third World War

Prologue: The Cold War, 1945-1983.

After the Second World War, the Cold War quickly began: a period of geopolitical tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc. The conflict was based on the ideological, economic, military and geopolitical struggle for global influence by these two superpowers, after their temporary alliance came to an end with their joint victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945. The term Cold War referred to the fact that between 1945 and 1983 tensions never went hot, i.e. there was no direct military confrontation between East and West. Instead they each supported opposing sides in regional conflicts which became proxy wars.

But there was more to the Cold War than just armed struggle for influence. Aside from the nuclear arsenal development and conventional military deployment, the struggle for dominance was expressed via indirect means such as psychological warfare, propaganda campaigns, espionage, far-reaching embargoes, rivalry at sports events such as the Olympic Games, and technological competitions such as the Space Race which had resulted in successes like the first manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961 and the American lunar landing in 1969.

The United States led Western bloc, consisting for the most part of First World liberal democracies, founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, a defensive military pact, in 1949. Additionally, six European countries initiated a process of economic integration by founding the European Coal and Steel Community, an international organization based on supranationalism (these six countries were West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). Tied to this bloc was a network of often authoritarian Third World countries, many of which were former European colonies.

The Eastern Bloc was led by the Soviet Union and its Communist Party, which had an influence across the Second World and was also tied to a network of dictatorial states. The Soviet Union had a command economy and installed similarly totalitarian regimes in its puppet states. The European communist countries in Eastern Europe were organized into Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, i.e. communist equivalents to the ECSC and NATO. Through these organizations the USSR cemented its hegemony over its Eastern European satellites. Before 1983, the Pact was only ever mobilized once to keep an unruly member in line: Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The US government supported anti-communist and right-wing governments and uprisings across the world, while the Soviet government funded left-wing parties and revolutions around the world. As nearly all the colonial states became independent in the period from 1945 to 1960, many became Third World battlefields in the Cold War. Vietnam is a prominent example: after gaining its formal independence from France in 1954, the communists fought the Western backed government in the south and later the US when they intervened directly.

Historians have divided the Cold War into phases marked by either increased tension or by détente. The first phase from 1945 to 1962 was tense. Major crises in this period include the 1948-’49 Berlin Blockade, the 1945-’49 Chinese Communist Revolution, the 1950-’53 Korean War, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1961 Berlin Crisis and finally the 1962 Cuban Missile War Crisis. Every one of these had the potential of snowballing into another World War, but didn’t because every time cooler heads prevailed. Given what happened at the dawn of the 1980s, there are some who regret that the United States didn’t take action against the Soviet Union early in the Cold War when a conflict would’ve been relatively bloodless compared to what happened in 1983. During the Berlin Blockade the Soviets had no nuclear weapons, which was why Stalin backed down in the first place. Another opportunity would’ve been the Korean War, during which the Soviet stockpile of nuclear warheads and its bomber fleet were so small that perhaps no bombs would’ve fallen on the continental United States at all. The US and the USSR competed for influence in Latin America, the Middle East, and the decolonizing states of Africa, Asia and Oceania. Examples include the early involvement of the United States in Vietnam to support the pro-Western south against the Soviet backed north, the Congo Crisis and the US and UK instigated 1953 coup in Iran.

A second phase began after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which was probably the closest the world had come to thermonuclear war until then (not long thereafter, the politburo got rid of Khrushchev because of his failed brinkmanship foreign policy, replacing him with Brezhnev). The new phase began with the Sino-Soviet Split, which led to a series of border skirmishes but not open war. Dissent occurred within the Warsaw Pact when Czechoslovakia’s new leadership wanted to pass reforms amounting to democratization and decentralization of the economy. This prompted a Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968 known in the West as the Prague Spring. In the Western bloc France under President De Gaulle demanded greater autonomy of action, eventually resulting in France leaving NATO’s military integrated command structure in 1966. The US experienced turmoil from the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam. In the 1960s and 70s an international peace movement arose which included movements against nuclear weapons testing and in favour of nuclear disarmament, with large anti-war protests.

By the 1970s, both sides had started making allowances for peace and security, ushering in a period of détente that saw the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the US opening relations with the People’s Republic of China as a strategic counterweight to the USSR. A number of self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist governments were formed in the second half of the 1970s in developing countries, including Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. The world seemed to be settling into an equilibrium and leaders on both sides seemed to see the benefit of limitations to their nuclear arsenals. Many historians view this as a period during which the world could’ve been saved. The Cold War, or Second Interbellum as it’s also known, would come to an end in 1983. An apocalyptic conflict would result from a tragic and completely avoidable series of events and poor decision making.
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So is the POD Able Archer causing WW3 or more like "the third world war" by Bazel Liddle Hart? Where it's a series of events?
John Hackett wrote "The Third World War." Basil Liddell Hart died in 1970. As to how the war starts, I'm thinking it would be like in Nena's "99 Luftballons."
John Hackett wrote "The Third World War." Basil Liddell Hart died in 1970. As to how the war starts, I'm thinking it would be like in Nena's "99 Luftballons."
I got the two of them confused, how awkward😅 thanks for the correction.
I think it's because Hacket mentioned him once that it stuck to my memory (It's been years since I read it
Chapter I: Year of Crisis, 1983.
So is the POD Able Archer causing WW3 or more like "the third world war" by Bazel Liddle Hart? Where it's a series of events?

Let's just say Able Archer is part of the PoD. It's time for a new update!

Chapter I: Year of Crisis, 1983.

Détente collapsed at the end of the decade with the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979. The early 1980s was another period of elevated tension. The United States increased diplomatic, military and economic pressures on the Soviet Union, at a time when it was already suffering from economic stagnation. With the election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and American President Ronald Reagan in 1980, a corresponding change in Western foreign policy approach toward the Soviet Union was marked by the rejection of détente in favour of the Reagan Doctrine policy of rollback, with the stated goal of dissolving Soviet influence in Soviet Bloc countries. During this time, the threat of nuclear war reached new heights not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Besides the obviously more confrontational Western stance, another issue that contributed to the tragic chain of events that led to nuclear Armageddon was the Soviet leadership crisis. The Soviet Union was a gerontocracy (few in the politburo were younger than 60) and its leaders weren’t in the best of health. Brezhnev had died at the age of 75 in November 1982, after keeping up an unhealthy lifestyle at best (heavy smoking, excessive drinking and an addiction to sleeping pills and tranquilizers). KGB Chief Yuri Andropov, his successor, was 68 years old when he assumed the reins of power and was already suffering from interstitial nephritis, nephrosclerosis, residual hypertension, diabetes and chronic kidney deficiency. He suffered total kidney failure in February 1983 and in August was admitted to Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, where he spent the last remaining month of his life. He died there of a sudden cardiac arrest in September, ending his tenure as Soviet leader after only ten months.

This sparked a struggle for succession. Andropov had always been opposed to plans to occupy Poland in response to the Solidarity (which ultimately never happened) and had begun appointing reform-minded party cadres after assuming leadership of the Soviet Union. Among them were Nikolai Ryzhkov, Yegor Ligachyov and particularly Andropov’s protégé Mikhail Gorbachev. Would a somewhat younger reformist take power and be able to energize and liberalize the stagnating USSR, or would a hardliner put his foot down to crush dissent and confront the West?

Viktor Grishin became the main candidate representing the hardliners after Chernenko declined to run for health reasons. Gorbachev represented the reformist faction. Both sides tried to get enough support in the politburo. Grishin gained the support of Grigory Romanov, his only competitor among the hardliners. As it turned out Romanov didn’t seek office as he believed his last name, the same as that of the last Tsar, would be a handicap. He therefore eagerly accepted the office of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in return for backing Grishin’s candidacy for the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party. Ligachyov and Ryzhkov switched to Grishin after respectively being offered the positions of Second Secretary of the Communist Party and Premier of the Soviet Union. Grishin also gained the support of KGB General Yevgeny Primakov, who he appointed as the new Chairman for the Committee of State Security (KGB) in return.

Within two weeks after Andropov’s funeral, Grishin became the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A pentarchy emerged consisting of Grishin, Romanov, Ligachyov, Ryzhkov and Primakov and the new General Secretary was “the first among equals” in this group (the once promising Mikhail Gorbachev was side lined to the office of Minister of the Fishing Industry, which was essentially a career dead end).

The new Soviet leadership took power at a time in which Cold War tensions peaked, so less than ideal circumstances when also dealing with a country in crisis and in desperate need of reforms. After the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics instigated by the US in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, things came to a head in 1983. The American announcement concerning the placement of Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles in West Germany, the first of which would arrive in November, increased tensions. Prior to that FleetEx 83 had taken place in April near the Aleutian Islands, assembling the most powerful armada ever seen (forty ships, 23.000 crewmembers and 300 aircraft). This led to Soviet outrage over US overflights of the Kurile Islands, resulting in a formal diplomatic note of protest and retaliatory Soviet overflights of the Aleutian Islands. US aircraft and ships attempted to provoke the Soviets into reacting, allowing US Naval intelligence to study Soviet radar characteristics, aircraft capabilities, and tactical manoeuvres.

A second concern was the “Strategic Defence Initiative” (SDI), which is also known under its derogatory name “Star Wars”. SDI was intended to provide the United States with the means to defend itself from attacks with intercontinental and submarine launched ballistic missiles. Though the required technologies for such a shield didn’t exist, certain Soviet military leaders believed this might neutralize their nuclear arsenal and leave the country completely open to a US first strike. Though not pivotal, this contributed to Soviet decision making.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had managed to discredit itself by shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. KAL 007 had been mistaken for a reconnaissance and/or espionage plane after unintentionally straying into forbidden Soviet airspace due to a navigational error. The outrage concerning the shootdown of this Boeing 747 passenger flight resulted in one of the tensest moments of the Cold War until then, with an escalation of worldwide anti-Soviet sentiment.

A longer running Soviet intelligence program at the time, initiated in 1981, was called Operation RYAN (Russian: Raketno Yadernoye Napadenie (Ракетно ядерное нападение), meaning “nuclear missile attack”). The purpose of this exercise was to deploy operatives to collect as much information as possible on the possibility of a nuclear first strike from the US or other NATO powers. This watchdog initiative seemed to unnerve rather than reassure the Soviet leadership. With all of the information flowing in, it was unclear which piece of intelligence marked the initiation of a preventive strike, which would call for immediate action from the Soviet side, before the Americans could even get weapons in the air. When the Americans rolled out their new class of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the Pershing II, the KGB knew that the Americans were ready to strike, and if it was a preventive strike, the Soviet arsenal of retaliatory weapons would be at a high risk. In February 1983, the KGB doubled down on Operation RYAN, focusing on any possible indication of a US plan to attack and exponentially increasing tensions.

Just as the USSR intensified its scrutiny of Western nuclear activity through Operation RYAN, the US and NATO began their most advanced, in-depth, and realistic war simulation yet, known as Able Archer. Launched in November 1983, what made this particular war-game so different, and ultimately so consequential, was the inclusion of an endgame scenario that simulated the nuclear option should the war reach such a level. Soviet intelligence was able to gather that this new aspect had been included, but they were unable to tell whether or not it was all part of the game, or if there was a potential threat of actual nuclear weapons being released. This escalation in the type of simulation being performed by NATO combined with the presence of Pershing II missiles in West Germany put the USSR on edge. The Soviets seriously worried about a NATO first strike, which led the Kremlin to consider steps to prevent that.
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Watching this. Was always a fan of the P & S series and anything 80s Cold War in general. Interested to see how I’ll fare in this timeline.
Chapter II: Casting the Die, November 7-9 1983.
And the story continues today!

Chapter II: Casting the Die, November 7-9 1983.

Able Archer was a highly realistic wargame based on a scenario, used by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the British Ministry of Defence, that envisioned Blue forces (NATO) fighting against Orange forces (Warsaw Pact) invading Norway, Finland and West Germany. Additionally the scenario involved proxy conflicts in Syria, Iran and South Yemen escalating after Yugoslavia joined the Blue bloc.

Thus, on November 7th 1983, as Soviet intelligence services were attempting to detect the early signs of a nuclear attack, NATO began to simulate one. The exercise, codenamed Able Archer, involved numerous NATO allies and simulated NATO’s command, control and communications (C3) procedures during a nuclear war. Because Able Archer 83 simulated an actual release of nuclear weapons, it’s likely that the service and technical personnel mentioned in a surviving memo were active in the exercise. More conspicuously, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl participated (though not concurrently) in the nuclear drill. United States President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger also participated.[1] New National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, who realized the implications, had urged them not to do so but Reagan and Bush didn’t heed his warning. They didn’t seriously believe the Soviets would mistake this exercise for the real deal. Some Soviet leaders, because of the preceding world events and the exercise's particularly realistic nature, feared that the exercise was a cover for an actual attack.

Additionally, the Soviet analysts noticed a high rate of encrypted communications between Great Britain and the United States. Soviet intelligence was informed that “so-called nuclear consultations" in NATO would most likely be one of the stages of immediate preparation by the adversary for RYAN (in reality, these communications concerned the US invasion of Grenada, of which Queen Elizabeth II was the sovereign monarch). Soviet intelligence, however, appeared to substantiate certain suspicions by reporting that NATO was using unique, never-before-seen procedures as well as message formats more sophisticated than previous exercises, which possibly indicated the proximity of nuclear attack.

Upon learning that US nuclear activity mirrored its hypothesized first strike activity, Moscow Centre sent its residencies a flash telegram on November 8th, incorrectly reporting an alert on American bases and frantically asking for further information regarding an American first strike. The alert precisely coincided with the seven- to ten-day period estimated between NATO’s preliminary decision and an actual strike. In other words, intelligence seemed to indicate a first strike might be as little as a week away.

In secret, without consulting the politburo, Grishin created a State Committee on the Military Emergency on November 8th at 06:30 AM Moscow Time. It first meeting took place in Grishin’s office in the Kremlin and began at 08:15 AM. This meeting would last a gruelling fourteen hours and with only two interruptions: lunch and dinner. Grishin himself was Chairman and the committee also included his loyal backers, the new powerbrokers in Moscow, Grigory Romanov, Yegor Ligachyov, Nikolai Ryzhkov and Yevgeny Primakov. Additionally, Chief of the General Staff Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, Soviet Minister of Defence Marshal Dmitry Ustinov and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko were made part of this committee too.

These eight men, who would soon decide the fate of the world, discussed the intelligence reports they’d received from Warsaw Pact intelligence agents at length. Said agents were extremely sceptical about a NATO first strike, perhaps because of their proximity to, and understanding of, the West. Nevertheless, agents were ordered to report their observations, not their analysis, and this absolutely critical flaw in the Soviet intelligence system fed the fear of US nuclear aggression. Grishin and the others eventually unanimously agreed the evidence pointed to an imminent NATO strike. They felt the Americans had chosen this time because the recent leadership change made the country temporarily vulnerable. They believed the US and its allies would use anti-Soviet sentiment resulting from the shootdown of KAL 007 as their justification for this “act of aggression”. In their own echo chamber this all sounded logical, but it’s believed that Andropov with his years of experience as KGB chief would’ve decided differently.

The next question facing the “Gang of Eight”, as they’ve gone down in history, was how to respond to this imaginary Western aggression, which to them seemed very real. Inaction was not an option, but worldwide total nuclear annihilation wasn’t exactly desirable either. A possible course of action was sought in which the USSR would survive. So a plethora of possible responses in between was discussed until they’d narrowed it down to four possibilities.

The first option they considered, suggested by Ligachyov, was a large scale mobilization that was to deter the West from action as it’d demonstrate Soviet awareness of their intent to Western leaders. Gromyko, rigidly conservative and distrustful of the West, considered this option much too tame. He proposed a limited nuclear strike that would serve to destroy the Pershing II launch sites, which the Americans would surely use for their first strike, and act as a show of force. Gromyko argued Reagan’s March 8th 1983 “Evil Empire speech” showed his intention to destroy the Soviet Union. Despite being a hardliner, first use of nuclear weapons was anathema to Grishin as it’d make the Soviet Union appear to be the aggressor. After KAL 007, the USSR enjoyed little goodwill outside its own Eastern Bloc allies. He wanted a compromise.

Grishin wanted the world to understand the legitimacy of Soviet military action. Given the Soviet standing in the world at the time, even more antipathy wasn’t something the USSR could use. He therefore seriously considered the more moderate third option: a conventional airstrike on all known Pershing II sites in West Germany with Su-24 tactical bombers, but that wouldn’t stop the Americans from installing new Pershing II missiles there again at secret sites.

Ustinov and Ogarkov proposed option number four: a pre-emptive invasion along the lines of the top secret simulation “Seven Days to the River Rhine” with the caveat that no nuclear weapons would be used. Secondly, preparations were made to advance beyond the Rhine if NATO wasn’t suing for peace by then. As part of that operation Su-24s and MiG-23s would bomb or strafe all known Pershing II sites with heavy conventional weaponry. The Gang of Eight chose option four at the end of the meeting at 10:15 PM on November 8th 1983. Orders for a general mobilization were issued within less than 45 minutes of the meeting’s conclusion and this was to be done in under 36 hours. To the outside world the Soviet Union would claim this was an exercise, which led to the great irony that they were doing what they were accusing the West of: faking an exercise as a ruse of war. They were going to launch a pre-emptive strike to destroy the perceived imminent threat: an imaginary preventive war intended to eliminate the USSR.

The Soviet leadership assumed a limited conflict would take place, but simultaneously issued top secret orders for preparations just in case the worst case scenario came true. All Soviet cabinet ministers, politburo members, members of the party’s Central Committee, delegates of the Supreme Soviet and thousands of other high-ranking party and state officials were awoken in the middle of the night and ordered either by phone or by KGB agents banging down their front door to immediately pack up the essentials and be ready by midnight. They and their families were going to be evacuated that same night by air or by busses to the major command centres at Sharapovo and Chekhov. Both were gigantic subterranean hardened complexes capable of accommodating 30.000 individuals each and tough enough to withstand a multimegaton range nuclear strike.

At 10:55 PM on Tuesday November 8th 1983, Moscow issued orders to the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany under the command of General Mikhail Zaitsev. They were told to mobilize and be ready for action within less than 36 hours. Zaitsev’s forces were to advance to the Rhine and halt there. Gromyko believed that the pending Soviet Army’s seven day operation would result in a successful advance to the Rhine, which in turn ought to provide a platform for an armistice and peace negotiations. The attack was to begin on Thursday November 10th 1983 at 05:00 AM Western European time. Removal of the Pershing II missiles, a demilitarized neutral West Germany, a removal of all foreign troops from Germany and West Berlin going to East Germany would be the main Soviet demands after their successful advance to the Rhine. The Cold War was to go hot in less than two days, marking the beginning of the end of civilization as many people knew it. The die had been cast.

[1] This is different from OTL, where Reagan and Bush decided not to participate to avoid raising tensions.
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Insane thing that known civilisation will end only because of some misunderstandment and poor communication but it almost happened in OTL.
Implementing the "Seven Days to the River Rhine" would also bring Austria to NATO side, right?

Only if Soviets go and invade Austria. For that them have not reason and I don't think that evne these hard-liners want violate neutrality of Austria what USSR too accepted.