In the days following Mikhail Gorbachev’s ouster, NATO’s civilian leadership, and military commanders collectively began to consider what the ramifications of the coup for their alliance, its member-nations, and for the military men, their respective commands. Romanov was a dyed-in-the-wool hardliner. It was generally assumed he would turn his attention to the smoldering situation in the Eastern European satellites once domestic issues back home were settled.
It was not widely known in April of 1987 just how deep of a hole the Soviet Union was in. There was increasing strife in the southern republics and the Baltic states. The grumblings were not restricted to Armenians and Estonians. Vexation was growing in the general population as well. Ethnic Russians were beginning to seriously question the Communist Party’s decisions, and motives in ever increasing numbers. The economy was teetering on the verge of complete collapse although, as a famous Western economist once observed, ‘the Soviet Union is always one wheat harvest away from dissolution.’ Afghanistan continued to consume an inordinate amount of blood and treasure in exchange for practically nothing in return. Soviet influence in Central America and other Third World areas continued to decline in the face of an aggressive US foreign policy.
Nowhere was the situation more precarious for Moscow than in Eastern Europe. Discontent was on the rise from East Berlin to Warsaw and Prague. Poland had never been properly pacified in the early 1980s. Jaruzelski was barely keeping his country together. Solidarity remained a force to be reckoned with, as did the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II. In East Berlin, Erich Honecker’s problems were more pronounced. His hold on power was growing weaker, and as Honecker went, so did the East German communist party, and the German Democratic Republic The sentiment that the East Germany could be on its last leg was shared by elitists and commoners alike. Moscow was fully aware of what was happening. East Germany would celebrate its 40th anniversary as a nation-state in two years. There was considerable worry in the Kremlin that the GDR might not last that long without Soviet military intervention.
An East German collapse would bring about a major crisis for NATO. This was an accepted fact in Brussels. As Romanov was consolidating his power in the Kremlin, General Bernard Rodgers, US Army, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) at the time, was holding meetings with his top commanders to discuss the situation, and the training schedule for the summer months. Rodgers was leaving in June and wanted everything to be running perfectly for his incoming successor, General John Galvin, US Army.
In the coming weeks a revised geo-political situation started taking shape. To the shock of many Western observers, Romanov’s first priority turned out to be challenging the United States by attempting to maneuver the Soviet Union into a position of, if not political strength, at least political parity to Washington. The military balance of power was beginning to tilt dangerously in America’s favor, even if the West did not recognize it at the time. By mid-May, incidents between US and Soviet aircraft, submarines, and ships at sea were becoming a regular occurrence. It was the collision between a Russian Tu-95 Bear and US Navy F-14 Tomcat in the Pacific though that captured Rodger’s attention. Incidents like that held the power to begin a war.
Romanov was playing for keeps, Rodgers realized. At that moment, the American general’s sole purpose became to ensure that NATO was fully prepared for war with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.
War clouds were gathering on the horizon.