30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

The Soviet Side of the 1983 War Scare

Published: Nov 5, 2018
Briefing Book #647

Edited by Nate Jones

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Politburo Member Warned that NATO Exercise Could Have Masked a First Strike

Soviet Documents Include 1981 KGB Orders and 1984 Military Analysis of Able Archer 83

The Soviet Side of the 1983 War Scare

Washington, D.C.,  November 5,  2018 – Beginning in 1981, the KGB’s “main objective” became “not to miss the military preparations of the enemy, its preparations for a nuclear strike, and not to miss the real risk of the outbreak of war,” according to the text of a previously secret speech by then-KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov  found in the Ukrainian KGB archives and published today by the National Security Archive.

The Andropov speech, Politburo-level warnings about the war risks from NATO exercises in the fall of 1983, and other previously secret Soviet documents and declassified U.S. sources included in today’s posting, confirm that ranking members of Soviet intelligence, military, and the Politburo, to varying degrees, were fearful of a Western first strike in 1983 under the cover of the NATO exercises Autumn Forge 83 and Able Archer 83. 

Also published today is a previously confidential February 1984 Soviet General Staff Journal Voennaya mysl’ [Military Thought] article analyzing NATO military exercises including Autumn Forge 83 and Able Archer 83.  The article opens with a warning from Soviet Politburo member and Minister of Defense Dmitry Ustinov just after the conclusion of Able Archer 83 in November 1983. Ustinov warned that NATO’s military exercises “are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from a real deployment of armed forces for aggression.”  The article goes on to state that, due to the large scale and realistic nature of NATO’s military exercises in 1983, “it was difficult to catch the difference between working out training questions and actual preparation of large-scale aggression.”

Today’s posting addresses a key historiographical problem faced by researchers working on the 1983 war scare, namely the paucity of primary source evidence from the Soviet side beyond the material provided by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky.  The documents published today support Gordievsky’s descriptions of KGB efforts in Operation RYaN starting in 1981 to detect signs of a potential Western first strike, and show that concerns over war risks in the fall of 1983 reached as high as the Politburo and the General Staff.

The evidence published in this posting includes:

  • Text of Andropov’s 1981 speeches to KGB officers announcing the impetus behind Operation RYaN (Raketno-Yadernoye Napadenie, “nuclear missile attack”) – the Soviet human intelligence effort to detect, with the aim of preempting, a Western first strike.
  • Text of a 1983 meeting between General Secretary Andropov and West German politician Hans-Jochen Vogel, in which Andropov warned of nuclear miscalculation, stating “After all, at the button that activates the nuclear weapon could be a drunken American sergeant or a drug addict.”
  • U.S. State Department deliberations confirming that a U.S. Navy aircraft “probably did pass over” Soviet-claimed territory in the Kuril Island chain while conducting simulated bombing runs in April and May 1983.  After the State Department rejected the démarche, the Soviet chargé d’affaires warned the United States “would bear responsibilities for the consequences.”
  • Ukrainian KGB summaries of public sentiment, including after the KAL 007 aircraft shootdown on September 1, 1983, confirming Western intelligence reports of a “fear of war [that] seemed to affect the elite as well as the man on the street.”
  • An October 1983 letter to all Soviet first secretaries in all regions and territories and the heads of all military districts and departments instructing them to increase border protection and internal preventative activities.
  • Minister of Defense Ustinov’s November 19, 1983 announcement in Pravda publicly acknowledging the Soviets' inability to tell a NATO exercise from an actual attack.
  • A February 1984 Voennaya mysl’ [Military Thought] analysis of NATO’s 1983 exercises, echoing Ustinov’s warning of the difficulty of distinguishing exercise from attack.
  • A previously secret September 1984 letter from KGB Chairman Viktor Chebrikov reiterating that the “most important” KGB activity was “not to miss the real threat of a nuclear strike.”
  • A 1989 update to a 1984 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate entitled “Warning of War In Europe,” stating “we cannot rule out the possibility nevertheless, that during a crisis the Soviets might choose to launch a preemptive attack on NATO.”
  • A previously unpublished interview with Colonel General Victor Ivanovich Yesin in which he recounts his  time serving in the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces during Able Archer 83.  Although he never got close to launching his weapons, he states that his and other nuclear forces went on “combat alert” and that Chief of the General Staff of the USSR Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov and head of Strategic Rocket Forces Marshal Vladimir Tolubko were constantly monitoring the exercise.

Combined with previously published British and American intelligence depictions of an “unparalleled in scale” Soviet military reaction, including transporting nuclear weapons to delivery units, suspension of flight operations other than intelligence flights, and “round the clock” military preparedness, these Soviet sources further confirm the increased nuclear risk which was present during the 1983 War Scare and Able Archer 83. 

While there is no evidence of an “imminent” Soviet launch of nuclear weapons in response to Able Archer 83, there is ample documentation that the East-West military-political confrontation and introduction of intermediate-range nuclear weapons by both superpowers into Europe decreased stability and increased the risk of war through miscalculation during the War Scare. 

The 1983 War Scare, including the Soviet proclamations about fear of war, military reactions to NATO exercises, and introduction of a KGB program named “Nuclear Missile Attack,” which required intelligence agents’ to make their “main objective” reporting on Western plans for a first strike, should therefore be a topic of concern and study for nuclear, political, military, and intelligence historians. 

Far from being a “non crisis” or a “war scare that wasn’t,” the 1983 US-Soviet confrontation is a profound representation of the “hair trigger” mindset toward which the nuclear arms race can push humanity.  As the delegation of U.S. Senators that met Andropov in August 1983 wrote to their colleagues, “despite all its sophistication, modern military power can be used rashly and in an entirely self-defeating way.”

 

The Documents

Notes

[1] Emphasis in the original. For more on Operation RYaN, see: Bernd Schaefer, Nate Jones, Benjamin B. Fischer, Forecasting Nuclear War, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, November 13, 2014; Nate Jones The 1983 War Scare: "The Last Paroxysm" of the Cold War Part I, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 426 (May 16, 2013); and Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-1985 (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1991), 67.

[2] Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 522.

[3] See The 1983 War Scare: "The Last Paroxysm" of the Cold War Part I, including the interview with Viktor M. Surikov, Deputy Director of the Central Scientific Research Institute, by John G. Hines, September 11, 1993 in Soviet Intentions 1965-1985: Volume II Soviet Post-Cold War Testimonial Evidence, by John G. Hines, Ellis M. Mishulovich, of BDM Federal, Inc. for the Department of Defense Net Assessment. Unclassified with portions "retroactively" classified.

[4] Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945 - 1989, Book IV: Cryptologic Rebirth, 1981-1989, National Security Agency Center for Cryptologic History, 1999, Top Secret, 318.

[5] CIA Studies in Intelligence article by Benjamin B. Fischer, "The 1983 War Scare in US-Soviet Relations," Undated, circa 1996, Secret.

[6] Newly declassified evidence does not exonerate the Soviets for this unnecessary loss of civilian life, but it does confirm that the Soviet military and Soviet intelligence genuinely believed that the plane was a spy plane.  The Reagan administration knew that there actually was a second plane, an Cobra Ball aircraft, in the vicinity and on a parallel route of KAL-007 that was monitoring a pending SSX-24 missile test. It did not reveal this to the American public at the time, due to its eagerness to “pounce on [it] and squeeze [it] dry of propaganda value.”  According to a declassified NSA history, there was “no question” Soviet ground controllers thought they were tracking a second U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. “Given the paranoia that had existed since April [the U.S. had flown simulated bombing runs that had penetrated deeply into Soviet territory], it was unthinkable that such a penetration could be permitted without action.”  We now know, thanks to this declassification, that, “It was the Reagan people who insisted that the Soviets could not have mistaken a 747 for a 707.  It was their value judgment.  It was wrong, but not so wide of the mark that one can impute anything more sinister than righteous wrath.  It was the height of the Second Cold War.”  Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945 - 1989, Book IV: Cryptologic Rebirth, 1981-1989, National Security Agency Center for Cryptologic History, 1999, Top Secret, 318.

[7] Pravda, September 29, 1983, cited in Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 130.

[8] See “Deception, Self-Deception and Nuclear Arms,” by McGeorge Bundy for the New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1984; Thomas Cochran, William Arkin, and Milton Hoenig, Nuclear Weapons Databook: Volume I U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities (Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1984), 292; and “Gorbachev’s Instructions to the Reykjavik Preparation Group,” October 4, 1986, in Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, The Last Superpower Summits (Budapest/New York: Central European University Press, 2016), 163.

[9] “Gorbachev’s Instructions to the Reykjavik Preparation Group,” October 4, 1986 in Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, The Last Superpower Summits (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2016), 163.

[10] Memorandum for National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane from Soviet expert Jack Matlock, “Subject: American Academic on Soviet Policy,” December 13, 1983, Confidential with attached EXDIS cable from the American Embassy in Moscow.

[11] Deputy Minister Markus Wolf, Stasi Note on Meeting with KGB Experts on the RYaN Problem, August 14-18, 1984, in Bernd Schaefer, Nate Jones, Benjamin B. Fischer, Forecasting Nuclear War, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, November 13, 2014.

[12] This and the subsequent Voeyennay Misl’ article were first cited in Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 140.

[13] Roy A. Medvedev, Neizvestnii Andropov (The Unknown Andropov), (Rostov: Feniks, 1999), 379-382.

[14]The Soviet ‘War Scare,’” President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, February 15, 1990, Top Secret. Declassified at the request and appeal of the National Security Archive on October 14, 2015.

[15] This and thirty other interviews with Eastern and Western sources conducted by Downing are available for researchers at the National Security Archive.  Downing has authored a book, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink (New York: Da Capo Press, 2018) based on these interviews.

[16] The latest available evidence shows that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States increased its nuclear readiness to DEFCON 2, just short of full readiness for nuclear war.  Sixty-six bombers were flying on continuous airborne alert, 912 bombers were on fifteen-minute ground alert, 182 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 112 submarine launched Polaris missiles were ready to fire.  In total, nearly three thousand U.S. nuclear weapons were prepared for imminent launch.  While the Soviet Union placed its strategic forces on an “extraordinary high state of alert,” its “offensive forces avoided assuming the highest readiness state, as if to insure that Kennedy understood that the USSR would not launch first.”  American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945-1989, Book II: Centralization Wins, 1960-1972, Thomas Johnson, National Security Agency Center for Cryptologic History, 1999, Top Secret.

[17] Interview with Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, Advisor to the President of the USSR by John G. Hines, September 11, 1993 in Soviet Intentions 1965-1985: Volume II Soviet Post-Cold War Testimonial Evidence, by John G. Hines, Ellis M. Mishulovich, of BDM Federal, INC. for the Office of the Secretary of Defense Net Assessment. Unclassified with portions "retroactively" classified.

[18] Marc Ambinder has cited an account of a high-level Soviet Foreign Ministry official, Sergei Tarasenko, who was shown a KGB paper by First Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Kornienko reporting that the KGB “had information that the United States had prepared for a first strike; that they might resort to a surgical strike against command centers in the Soviet Union; and that they had the capability to destroy the system by incapacitating the command center.”  Marc Ambinder, The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 204.

[19] Valentin Varennikov, Nepovtorimoe, (Unique) Volume 4, (Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel' 2001), 168. Varennikov was also at one time commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan and later participated in the coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.  For a through overview of Warsaw Pact and NATO exercises dating to the 1970s, see Diego A. Ruiz Palmer, “The NATO-Warsaw Pact competition in the 1970s and 1980s: a revolution in the military affairs in the making or the end of a strategic era?” Cold War History, 14:4, 533-573.  For a document-based account of the Soviet-led alliance, see Vojtech Mastny and Malcolm Byrne, A Cardboard Castle? An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact, 1955-1991 (Budapest: CEU Press, 1995).

[20] For a more in depth discussion of the Soviet ballistic program, see Pavel Podvig, “The Window of Vulnerability That Wasn’t: Soviet Military Buildup in the 1970s—A Research Note,” International Security, Summer 2008, Vol. 33, No. 1: 118-138 which discusses the purported US vulnerability to Soviet ballistic missiles.

[21] Jen Hoffenaar and Christopher Findlay, eds., Military Planning for European Theatre Conflict During the Cold War: An Oral History Roundtable Stockholm, 24-25 April 2006, Center for Security Studies ETH Zurich, 161.