In 2005 the newly-elected conservative government in Poland released previously classified Cold War documents which, in their own words, would help to draw a line under the country's Communist past and educate the Polish public about the former regime. One particular set of documents immediately stood out and captured the world's attention. They detail a secret Soviet war game exercise entitled "Seven Days to the River Rhine". Originally created in 1979. This plan explored the events and possible outcomes of a limited nuclear exchange and armed conflict in Europe. The documents and their accompanying maps make for rather chilling viewing.
The premise of SDTTRR predicted that NATO would be the first to make an aggressive move. It involved a NATO invasion of East Germany along with a series of accompanying tactical nuclear strikes along the valley of the River Vistula in Poland that would prevent Soviet reinforcements arriving from the east. With their options limited, the Soviets would respond by launching their own nuclear strikes against targets in Denmark, West Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium to disrupt the NATO command structure before initiating their own invasion of West Germany, stopping at the River Rhine so as not to overstretch their supplies. The whole operation was planned to last a week, hence the name.
Interestingly, Britain and France would not be targeted with nuclear weapons. This was probably in order to reduce the liklihood of retaliatory strikes against the Soviet Union from those countries, both of which possesed their own independent nuclear arsenals. Nonetheless the loss of life resulting from such an operation, despite its limited geographical scope and timescale, would have been incredibly high. It is estimated that over two million Polish civilians would have been killed in the initial NATO strike whilst the Soviet response would kill countless more in Brussels, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Munich, Frankfurt and other Western European cities.
Despite the fact that it was never carried out. Seven Days to the River Rhine serves not only as an example of a scary what-might-have been scenario but also as an example of the mentality that prevailed among the Soviet leadership at the time. It is a classic case of Warsaw Pact military thinking, a "defensive exercise" in which the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies defend themselves by attacking into NATO territory. Although this plan involved halting at the Rhine, I would certainly expect the Warsaw Pact forces to have pushed all the way to the Atlantic in the name of defence if they could have done (i.e. were it not for the threat of a British/French nuclear strike or an all-out confrontation with the United States).
The major problem with the idea of SDTTRR, however, is that it disregards the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). In my mind it just seems impossible that there could be a limited direct confrontation between east and west without it escalating into an all-out nuclear war, something which, for obvious reasons, neither side was willing to risk. With that in mind, I believe we can be doubly thankful that SDTTRR never got further than the drawing-board. Things hardly ever go according to plan...