The already grim military situation of Hungary’s Kadar regime grew that much worse once Yugoslavia formally declared war on the Soviet Union; the prevailing mindset in Belgrade was that Hungary, as the lone remaining Soviet ally in Europe, not only had to be neutralized as a military threat to its neighbors but also had to be called to account for its cooperation with the KGB plot to assassinate the late Nicolae Ceausescu. Indeed, before Marshal Tito had even gone on JRT Radio to announce the declaration of war Yugoslav Army infantry and armor units were already smashing across Hungary’s western border while Yugoslav Air Force jets bombed Hungarian strategic and tactical assets north of Lake Balaton. It was a further shock to the badly rattled Kadar government; the same chaos which had precipitated the collapse of East Germany and Gustav Husak’s Czech puppet state began to manifest itself in the halls of power in Budapest. When Yugoslav troops captured the town of Kaposvár on November 15th, 1968, just six days after hostilities between Yugoslavia and the Hungarian-Soviet alliance started, a panicked Kadar threatened to have his entire general staff shot if the town wasn’t immediately retaken.
Nor did it help Kadar’s nerves any when detachments of the Yugoslav 37th Motorized Division linked up with Romanian advance units at Kiskőrös on November 20th, effectively sealing Budapest off from the rest of Hungary and creating a noose which would be steadily tightened in the coming weeks. For the Kadar regime’s top military leaders there was a feeling of déjà vu as the combined Yugoslav-Romanian drive towards the Hungarian capital unfolded in a way similar to the Red Army’s push on Berlin near the end of the Second World War. Ironically the dwindling Soviet military contingent in Hungary, now one of the last such forces still operational in Europe outside the Soviet Union itself, was playing the same role as the Wehrmacht and Volkssturm had for Nazi Germany-- waging a desperate and ultimately doomed 11th hour effort to stave off a numerically superior foe who also held a growing advantage in equipment and supplies. Cut off from any but the tiniest trickle of reinforcement or resupply, Soviet troops faced a tactical situation every bit as grim as that of their Hungarian comrades if not more so. One of the final dispatches from the KGB station chief in Budapest to the agency’s headquarters in Moscow, sent just before midnight local time on December 10th, painted an alarming picture of an army corps falling apart like wet paper in the face of relentless assault by Yugoslav and Romanian forces.
Within less than a week of that dispatch’s transmission to Moscow, Yugoslav and Romanian generals were meeting in Belgrade for a joint staff conference to finalize the timetable for launching the assault to capture Budapest. Appropriately code-named Operation Coffin, the attack plan called for Romanian infantry and armored units to strike at the Hungarian capital from the east and south while Yugoslavian ground forces launched a three-pronged thrust on the city’s western sectors. To relieve pressure on the Romanians and Yugoslavs the Czech army would conduct a diversionary feint on the northern sectors of Budapest using two reserve divisions; the second such unit would be a particular thorn in the side of the Hungarians, as it was comprised partly of former anti-Husak guerrillas who’d been recruited to put their insurgency experience to use in mounting hit-and-run attacks behind the Hungarian lines. At 4:25 AM local time on the morning of December 18th, 1968 Operation Coffin began in earnest with a series of bombing strikes by Romanian Air Force MiG-17s on Hungarian defensive positions near the edge of Budapest Airport. Within minutes after the Czech general staff headquarters received confirmation of the strikes they gave their reserve divisions on the Hungarian border the green light to commence the diversionary feint. While the Hungarians were struggling to contain the Czech ground forces in the north, the Yugoslav and Romanian forces sprang their main offensive thrust on Budapest's vulnerable eastern and western sectors.
Within 36 hours after the initial Yugoslav and Romanian attacks on Budapest Romanian troops had secured a sizable foothold in the city's Csepel-Királyerdő district and Yugoslav artillery spotters could see the spires of the Hungarian Parliament Building through their binoculars. The Soviet army in Hungary had effectively ceased to exist as a cohesive fighting force and Hungary's own army was on the verge of final collapse. After December 20th most of the fighting in the defense of Budapest would be done not by regular Hungarian troops but by hastily scraped-together "home guard" units formed from remnants of Hungary's border police and Hungarian air force flak crews whose anti-aircraft guns now constituted the only viable artillery left in the Hungarian military. Under normal circumstances the Soviets could have prevented this dire state of affairs by mounting an armored thrust to relieve Budapest, but with the Ukraine in chaos that option had been irreversibly taken away from Brezhnev's generals. Janos Kadar, realizing the jig was up for his regime, shot himself at his official residence just before midnight on December 22nd; interior minister András Benkei was appointed head of a provisional government whose only concern at that point was to end the fighting before the already badly damaged capital was destroyed altogether. At 5:00 AM on December 23rd, with Romanian armored vehicles poised to cross the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Benkei instructed his deputy to contact the nearest Romanian or Yugoslav commander to request surrender terms.
In Bucharest Gheorge Maurer received the news of Benkei's surrender decision with immense satisfaction. The late Nicolae Ceaucescu's promise to have the Romanian flag flying over Budapest by Christmas had been fulfilled. When Hungarian, Romanian, and Yugoslav diplomats met in Bucharest sixteen hours later to sign the surrender agreement, Maurer arranged to have a copy of the agreement delivered to Ceaucescu's birthplace in Scornicești as a symbolic way of saying "mission accomplished" to his predecessor. Meanwhile, thousands of miles from Scornicești the long-simmering tensions between Moscow and Beijing along the Siberian frontier were about to finally hit the boiling point....
For thousands of Red Army soldiers and officers stationed at the volatile Siberian frontier with China on January 1st, 1969, the new year would be ushered in not with champagne or the lowering of a silver ball but with the thunder of Chinese artillery bombarding Soviet defensive positions at a dozen or more points along the Ussuri River. With the Soviet Union on its heels in central Europe and battling a full-on rebellion in the Ukraine, the powers that be in Tienanmen Square had decided that this was the perfect time to settle the Siberian border question once and for all by force of arms. Accordingly, at 11:30 PM Beijing time on December 31st, 1968 Chinese defense minister Lin Biao gave his staff the green light to commence a four-pronged attack against the most vulnerable sectors of the Soviet army’s Far East perimeter. From our vantage point today it can be understood that Biao was courting disaster even with the chaos which had descended on the Soviet military during the Czech War; at the time, however, it looked like Beijing was getting ready to hammer the final nail in the coffin of Moscow’s control of the Ussuri region.
Knowing that they were at a disadvantage against their Soviet adversaries in terms of nuclear weapons capability, the Chinese staked their hopes for victory on a massive conventional assault, the goal being to overwhelm Red Army border defenses before the Soviets could make a counterattack. Once the PLA had staked a sufficiently large foothold in the disputed border region, Biao was sure Beijing could force Moscow to accept a settlement of the territorial question on China’s terms. Taking a lesson from Israel’s decisive victory over its Arab foes in the Six-Day War, the Chinese supplemented their ground assaults with a wave of pre-emptive air strikes against Soviet air force bases in the region. But if Beijing hoped these strikes would guarantee the success of the ground offensive, they were in for a rude awakening. The crippling combined effects of Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the prioritization of missiles and nuclear weapons over aircraft had left the People’s Liberation Army Air Force(PLAAF) a shadow of the formidable corps that had existed in the 1950s.
So it was little surprise in hindsight that the Red Army was able to rally quickly from the initial shock of the Chinese attack and stop the PLA in its tracks; unlike Joseph Stalin, who had infamously hesitated nearly a week before responding to the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, Brezhnev authorized his Far East commanders to take retaliatory action within less than three hours of the first reports of Chinese troops crossing the Siberian frontier. By mid-afternoon on January 2nd the main PLA battle force found itself under assault along its eastern flank by Soviet motorized infantry and armored units; within thirty minutes after the Soviet ground thrust was launched Red Air Force MiG-21s were strafing the Chinese lines with cannon and rocket fire. On the southern side of the Ussuri River patrol boats belonging to the Soviet Navy supplemented these attacks with rocket strikes of their own, which would later prompt the PLA soldiers to nickname these boats “floating death”. With Chinese ground forces effectively pinned down, it was just a matter of time before their Soviet counterparts began moving to encircle them and cut off their supply lines.
Sure enough, by sunset Beijing time on the evening of January 4th the PLA general staff headquarters was receiving grim reports that the PLA’s main advance units had been surrounded by at least three or more Soviet mechanized infantry divisions. Mao Zedong, whose mental state had been questionable even before the outbreak of hostilities with the Soviet Union, suffered a psychotic break when he heard the news and ordered that the commanders of the advance units in question be shot. Lin Biao rightly pointed out such executions would only serve to damage morale among the rank and file of the ordinary PLA soldiers; regarding Biao's warnings as unforgivable insolence, Mao promptly had him arrested and jailed. Biao would be executed for treason just 12 hours later. During those twelve hours the Soviets would continue to press home their assaults on the steadily shrinking Chinese pockets along the Siberian frontier. In the hope of saving their remaining troops from the disaster that was unfolding, many PLA officers disregarded Beijing's orders to stand fast and led their men in desperate attempts to break out of the pockets the Soviets had trapped them in. Some units were able to escape, but many others were either captured or wiped out to the last man. The captured soldiers were displayed on Soviet state TV, giving the Kremlin a much-needed short term public image boost among its citizens.
But as Newton's Third Law famously states: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Just as the Red Army's Far East forces were poised to deliver a knockout punch to Mao's hopes of redrawing the Chinese-Soviet border their comrades in the Ukraine found all hell breaking loose around them. The Ukrainian anti-Brezhnev insurgency hadn't given up its quest to achieve independence from the Kremlin, and as both sides in the guerrilla confllict were straining to cope with a typically harsh eastern European winter things were ironically about to heat up for Moscow....
For the Red Army general staff in Moscow, the escalation of the anti-Brezhnev guerrilla war in the Ukraine couldn’t have happened at a worse time. One minute Soviet ground forces in the Far Eastern Military Oblast(district) were on the verge of achieving a decisive victory over the Chinese in the fight for control of the Siberian border; the next the Kremlin found itself having to hastily recall thousands of troops to the Kiev Oblast in response to a new wave of surprise attacks from insurgent forces who saw the outbreak of armed conflict on the Sino-Soviet frontier as a golden opportunity for them to redouble their campaign to bring about Ukrainian independence. Not that the insurgents had been idle before the Sino-Soviet conflict began-- as early as December 18th, 1968, two full weeks before the initial Chinese invasion of Siberia, anti-Brezhnev rebels had mounted large-scale attacks on government forces in Odessa and Poltava. Although the partisans had sustained horrendous casualties in those attacks, they had in turn inflicted serious damage on their opponents and further weakened the Kremlin’s already shaky grip on control of the Ukraine.
But it would be on the afternoon of January 5th, 1969 that the rebellion truly began to press home its campaign to liberate Ukraine from Soviet control. That day, in what folk songs of the era nicknamed "the battle of the tombstones" and modern Ukrainian school history texts refer to as "Operation Lychakiv", rebel snipers in Lviv ambushed a Red Army convoy as it was passing the Lychakiv Cemetery. The Red Army forces, caught off-guard by this sudden ruthless attack from what had previously been believed to be a quiet sector of the Lviv area, sustained massive casualties in the first minutes of the ambush. And things would only get worse from there for the Red Army troops as additional rebel detachments, armed with RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, proceeded to strike at the convoy's rear flank while the snipers continued to pour off nonstop volleys of rifle and machine gun fire. One of the few Red Army soldiers to survive the disastrous skirmish would tell a Canadian TV journalist twenty years later: "You could smell the blood and the burning gasoline everywhere....the smoke just curled endlessly upward." By the time the engagement ended some four-plus hours later, eighty-five percent of the convoy's vehicles had been destroyed and most of the remaining fifteen percent were damaged beyond repair. It was only by a stroke of luck that a handful of government troops were able to escape, and even then they had to do so mostly on foot, trudging through mud and snow for several hours before they were eventually picked up by helicopter at the Skif Stadium sports arena.
As Brezhnev and his generals tried to salvage the USSR's crumbling strategic position in Ukraine and the rebels began marshaling their strength to capitalize on the success of the Lychakiv ambush, two other nations thousands of miles from the Ukrainian battlefront were faced with military quandaries of their own. Egypt and Syria, which had still not yet fully recovered from their crushing defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War and were now locked in another conflict with their Jewish neighbor, were in need of a new foreign patron as their ties with Moscow continued to fray. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Syrian counterpart, Nureddin al-Atassi, were all too aware of the potential consequences of not having enough firepower if the War of Attrition escalated into something larger....
For Egypt and Syria, the outbreak of the Czech War made already dire military equipment shortages that much worse. The two countries’ armed forces still hadn’t fully recovered from the catastrophic blows Israel had inflicted on them in the Six-Day War; now that their primary foreign military supplier was locked in a struggle with the West’s foremost power to decide the future of Europe, the Egyptian and Syrian governments found themselves obliged to cast about for alternative sources of weapons and ammunition to keep their defense capabilities from crumbling beneath the relentless pressure of Israeli attacks. The debate over how to solve the arms deficit raged almost constantly through the halls of power in Cairo and Damascus during the latter half of 1968. There certainly wasn’t any chance of getting arms from the United States; Washington’s Middle East policy was staunchly pro-Israel, even if there was no direct U.S. involvement in the War of Attrition. Nor was it likely they’d get much help from Great Britain, given that Britain tended to tended to follow Washington’s lead in regard to Arab-Israeli relations. There was a potential hope for getting at least some arms from France, but the price for those arms struck some members of the Egyptian and Syrian military leadership as a bit steep for their needs.
The anti-Brezhnev uprising in Ukraine further complicated Egypt’s and Syria’s troubles on this score. As the Ukrainian rebel forces grew stronger and asserted more and more control over what had been a Soviet vassal state, it became increasingly clear to the Nasser and Nureddin regimes they could no longer rely on Moscow’s aid to keep their respective war machines functioning. So accordingly, in January of 1969 a joint Syrian-Egyptian army delegation set off for Beijing in hopes of opening negotiations with China to provide weaponry and munitions to offset the shortfall resulting from the loss of what for years had been Egypt’s and Syria’s chief source of foreign defense aid. It says volumes about just how grave the Syrian and Egyptian armed forces’ situation was that Nasser and Nureddin were even considering the notion of asking for help from China– a country itself in the grip of severe political upheaval. Simply getting to Beijing in the first place was a challenge in itself; NATO had increased its naval presence in the Mediterranean in order to support U.S. and allied ground troops in central Europe, meaning there were more aircraft carriers than usual within striking range of Cairo and Damascus. On top of that the Israeli Air Force was flying round-the-clock interceptor patrols in hopes of getting a chance to liquidate a VIP Egyptian or Syrian target the same way the U.S. Army Air Force had disposed of Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943.
After following one of the most complicated flight paths imaginable, one that took them not only through Lebanon, Iraq, and Soviet Central Asia but also into Mongolia and even a brief stopover in Tokyo, the Syrian-Egyptian delegation finally arrived in Beijing on January 15th, 1969 in a Tupolev jet loaned from Syria’s national airline. The members of the delegation were understandably quite nervous about the volatile domestic situation which existed in China at the time-- but it wasn't until the delegation's highest-ranking military member, Egyptian air force chief of staff Hosni Mubarak, stepped off the plane that they truly began to realize just how far things had gone off the rails in the People's Republic. He hadn't even opened the door of his waiting limousine when he noticed what looked like a stone whizzing past his face, missing his nose by mere inches. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed that a mini-riot was raging at the edge of the airport between supporters of the radical Red Guards student movement and followers of more mainstream CPC factions; although the uprising would quickly be brought under control, it left an unnerving impression on the Syrian and Egyptian delegates and set an awkward tone for the rest of their time in China. Declassified CIA reports of information gleaned from monitoring communications between the Egyptian embassy in Beijing and the Egyptian defense ministry headquarters back in Cairo indicate that the atmosphere at the start of negotiations was, at best tense to the point of being strained...something which didn't bode well for Nasser's or Nureddin's hopes of gaining Mao's support as their new chief military patron.
Sure enough, the talks ended on January 26th without much being gained for Egypt and Syria other than a vague promise from Mao to deliver surplus aircraft and tanks to both countries within the next 12 months. As Mubarak and his colleagues boarded their plane for the long trip back to Cairo, they had little inkling that just across China's border with North Korea Kim Il Sung's regime was faced with serious internal unrest of its own. The aftermath of the Pueblo crisis had opened up a political can of worms within Kim's inner circle, and a chain of events was unfolding which would give cause for concern on both sides of the 38th parallel.....