Every officially sanctioned Soviet and, more recently, Russian history of the Soviet-German War published since war’s end categorically asserts that, immediately after the Red Army completed its successful winter campaign in the Ukraine during mid-April 1944, Stalin ordered his Stavka and General Staff to begin preparations to conduct a series of successive strategic offensives through Belorussia and Poland during the summer of 1944, which, from a military and political perspective, were designed to hasten the destruction of the Wehrmacht and Hitler’s Third Reich in the shortest possible time by exploiting the most direct route into the heart of Germany. Only after completing these more important offensives, these sources argue, did Stalin finally unleash the Red Army on an invasion of Romania and the Balkan region. According to this strategic paradigm, when the Red Army actually implemented the Stavka’s plan, it began its offensive into Belorussia in late June, its offensive into southern Poland in mid-July, and its offensive into Romania in late August.
Furthermore, these same histories argue that, just as the Balkan region was a secondary strategic objective for Stalin during the Red Army’s summer-fall campaign of 1944, it remained of secondary importance when the Red Army conducted its offensives during the winter campaign of 1945. Therefore, just as the Red Army invaded Romania in late August 1944, but only after its offensives in Belorussia and eastern Poland succeeded, likewise, during its winter campaign of 1945, the Red Army captured Budapest and western Hungary and invaded Austria in February and March 1945, but only after its offensive through Poland to the Oder River succeeded.
However, the “discovery” of the Red Army’s attempt to invade Romania in mid-April and May 1944 casts serious doubts on this prevailing strategic paradigm. In short, the precise timing, immense scale, complex nature, and obvious objectives of the Red Army’s offensive into Romania during April and May 1944 now clearly indicate that Stalin and his Stavka were paying considerable attention to strategic imperatives other than those described in this prevailing strategic paradigm. Simply stated, vital military, economic, and political factors prompted Stalin to order his Red Army to mount a major offensive of immense potential strategic significance into Romania between mid-April and late May 1944….
In addition to these purely military considerations, there were also strategically vital economic and political motives for Stalin and his Stavka to mount an invasion of Romania during April and May 1944. Economically, for example, as von Senger pointed out, if successful, a full-fledged Red Army invasion of Romania could deprive the Axis of its vital oilfields in Romania, thereby seriously degrading Germany’s ability to continue the war. More important still from a political standpoint, a successful invasion of Romania would likely topple the pro-German Romanian government and drive Romania from the war, and perhaps even force Bulgaria to abandon its looser ties with Hitler’s Germany. In fact, the loss of a significant portion of Romania to the Red Army would shake if not shatter the Axis’ defenses throughout the entire Balkans, inject a sizeable Red Army presence in the region, and end all hopes by Stalin’s “Big Three” counterparts, Roosevelt and Churchill, that they could halt the spread of Soviet influence into the Balkan region.
In short, since Stalin’s Western Allies were already planning Operation Overlord to land their forces on the coast of France, the Red Army’s entry into Romania would end, once and for all, Stalin’s anxiety over his Allies establishing a “second front” in the Balkans. Ever the realist, Stalin judged that the potential political gains associated with the Red Army’s advance into Romania during April and May 1944 more than outweighed any associated military risks. Nor was it coincidental that, after his spring 1944 venture failed and the Red Army’s summer offensives to the north succeeded, Stalin unleashed the Red Army forces on a new invasion deeper into Romania and the Balkans during August 1944.
Furthermore, although it will be the subject of a future book, it is now quite clear that Stalin continued to pursue a similar “Balkan strategy” during the winter of 1945 after his Allies assured him at the Yalta Conference in early February that Berlin would be his for the taking. As a result, within hours after receiving these assurances, Stalin abruptly halted the Red Army’s advance on Berlin along the Oder River, only 30 miles from Berlin, and instead shifted its main axis of advance—first, into western Hungary and, later, into the depths of Austria—for essentially the same political reasons that had motivated him to invade Romania during April, May, and August 1944. Just as Stalin had altered his strategy for a drive on Berlin by attempting to invade Romania in April and May 1944 only to resume his advance along the Berlin axis in June, a year later the Red Army began its final drive on Berlin on 16 April 1945, the day after Vienna fell. Therefore, the Red Anny’s failed offensive into Romania during April and May 1944 is remarkably consistent with Stalin’s strategic behavior during 1945.
Regardless of Stalin’s motives for authorizing the offensive into Romania, for a variety of reasons, the Red Army’s first Iasi-Kishinev offensive ended as a spectacular failure. After failing to overcome Axis defenses from the march during mid-April, Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front was equally unsuccessful in its better-prepared offensive aginst Axis forces defending in the Tirgu-Frumos and Iasi regions in May. During the same period, although Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front was able to seize some bridgeheads across the Dnestr River in early April, its twin efforts to expand those bridgeheads later in the month achieved little more. Complicating the Stavka’s strategic plans, while Konev and Malinovsky were organizing a third effort to capture Iasi and Kishinev during mid-May, for the first time since late 1942, counterattacking German forces actually managed to inflict serious defeats on major Red Army forces defending bridgeheads across a major river….
The defending German forces had also been fighting for as prolonged a period as their Red Army counterparts and had suffered many serious and costly defeats and heavy losses in men and equipment. Furthermore, when Konev’s and Malinovsky’s forces invaded Romania, in many sectors they faced green and poorly motivated and equipped Romanian troops. Despite this fact, fighting with a determination born of desperation, the Axis forces were able to hold firmly to most of their defenses in April and early May and, thereafter, mount successful counterstrokes of their own during early May and early June.
Difficult spring weather conditions and the adverse effect of the heavy rains and flooding on the terrain also certainly exacerbated the already significant logistical problems the two fronts were experiencing as they operated at the end of their overextended lines of communications characterized by a rickety patchwork logistical network that was just being constructed. First, the two Ukrainian fronts were conducting offensive operations in a region whose hilly, broken, and often lightly wooded terrain differed substantially from the rolling grass-covered flatlands of the Ukraine to which their troops were long accustomed.
Second, for the first time in the war, the two fronts were attempting to conduct offensive operations after warmer weather melted the icy surface they had exploited to conduct mobile military operations in previous winters. Predictably, the rasputitsa proved as formidable an obstacle to the two fronts’ advancing forces as the Germans’ resistance and, in some cases, even more formidable.
Third, compounding the problems cited above, pursuant to orders, as they conducted their fighting withdrawal, the Germans systematically destroyed everything of value both for destruction’s sake and to create obstacles to the Red Army’s forward movement. They blew up railroads, beds, tracks, and culverts alike; they cratered roads and demolished dams; and they destroyed every building or installation regardless of military value. In short, they left a vast wasteland for the Red Army to traverse in their wake.
As a result, whether attacking or defending, in addition to experiencing customary shortages of food, which made soldierly foraging an essential art, and the normal effects of prolonged combat attrition, virtually every formation and unit within the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts suffered significant losses in weaponry and heavy equipment and experienced severe ammunition and fuel shortages. For example, archival documents indicate that, prior to its offensive along the Tirgu Frumos axis on 2 May, the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s 2nd Tank Army was supplied with between two and five combat loads of ammunition and two to two and one-half refills of gasoline and diesel fuel, which was not excessively low to conduct such an operation. However, it would be disingenuous to offer these realities as excuses for Konev’s and Malinovsky’ offensive failures, since, as was always the case, the two front commanders, as well as their subordinate officers and soldiers alike, frequently relied on sheer ingenuity or “native wit” to resolve their logistical dilemmas.