Through the Cold War years it was generally expected that if war were to erupt in Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact it would begin with a full scale Soviet invasion of West Germany. Endless waves of Soviet armor pouring across the North German Plain was a constant nightmare for western military planners. Should the day have come, both sides were prepared to fight and decisively win the battle. For over forty years Europe was a veritable armed camp on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Fortunately, the war that so many expected and prepare for never came. In 1989 peace broke out instead. The Cold War ended and the massive armies staked out on both sides of the border either fell victim to the Peace Dividend or simply melted away.
Fast forward to the current day. The ghosts of that hypothetical battle appear to have found a new home in Eastern Europe. NATO is once again facing the prospect of having to fight a potential conventional war in Europe against Russia. The current parameters and balance of forces are somewhat different when compared to 1989, though. And for that matter, so is the real estate where the fighting would take place. Yet, for as many differences as there are, a number of similarities between then and now also exist.
For the purpose of this article, let’s assume the NATO-Russia war centers on a Russian invasion of Poland. Let us also assume that by the time Russia launches its attack on Poland (H Day), at least two of the three Baltic states have been neutralized either through political or military means: Hybrid War and/or political coups negate Estonia and Latvia. The NATO forces stationed there have been redeployed to Poland. Only Lithuania is holding out, but it will not last for very long once offensive operations commence.
At first glimpse, an invasion of Poland appears to be a condensed version of a Soviet invasion of West Germany. On the Russian side, the main offensive weapons will be heavy maneuver (tank and motor rifle) forces, supported by a respectable amount of artillery and airpower. Airmobile and special operations forces will be employed to seize key objectives and cause disruptions in NATO rear areas. Speed and shock are essential for a Russian thrust. The armored spearheads on the ground must overwhelm NATO defenses and achieve a breakthrough before additional NATO reinforcements arrive to plug the gap. When a breakthrough is made, Russian forces need to exploit it quickly and take advantage of the terrain. As mentioned in previous articles, the eastern half of Poland is very favorable for tanks and mechanized infantry.
Expect the main Russian effort to come from Belarus in the form of two pronged assault. One, spearheaded by the 20th Army and attached reinforcements, advancing from the Grodno area and crossing the frontier east of Bialystok, Poland. The second, made up of the 6th Army and attachments, will cross the border from around Brest in Belarus and driving west towards Biala Podlaska and beyond. The 1st Guards Tank Army will serve as an Operational Maneuver Group of sorts, prepared to exploit a breakthrough. The primary objective of an invasion would be Warsaw. In all likelihood, it is not viable for the Russians to want to advance beyond the Polish capital. West of the city the terrain becomes more favorable to the defender and the closer the Russian army gets to Germany, the higher the possibility of escalation.
An advance from Kaliningrad is feasible as well. However, the objectives of it will likely be limited. The terrain in that area of Poland is somewhat more rugged and defendable and the Russian forces in Kaliningrad do not possess the combat power and logistics for a deep advance into Polish territory. But they can at least hold down NATO forces for a period of time.
Eastern Poland is dominated by farmlands and thick swaths of forest. Cities and towns dominate the landscape, yet none of them are so valuable that either side would feel compelled to spend valuable time and efforts in defending or seizing them. The terrain is generally flat with low rising hills being common. There are no mountains or ridges in the potential areas of advance and fighting. The Bug River is an obstacle that will need to be handled by the Russians should NATO use it as a defensive line. Its value was mentioned in previous articles. To summarize, if Russian forces move fast enough and can achieve a breakthrough, the possibility of pocketing NATO forces east of the Bug does exist. Such a scenario would be disastrous for NATO and Poland especially. It would lead to a cease fire agreement with terms very favorable to Russia.
For NATO, defending Polish territory would be an exercise similar to what would have been seen in West Germany had the balloon gone up there during the Cold War. The Poles have to avoid defending too far forward and standing its ground too stubbornly. Both instances will result in heavy casualties for little in return. Poland can trade space for time until reinforcements arrive from other NATO allies and from across the Atlantic. But it has to be willing to accept having a portion of its territory and citizens in Russian hands for a period of time.
*Much of my posting lately has been devoted to Greece. I anticipated finishing the Defending Poland articles by last Thursday. This has not happened, so I am extending the timeline slightly. I will publish Part Two of this article later in the week and wrap up with a concluding article over the weekend. In between, expect more updates and some analysis on what is happening in Greece right now.*