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.”
Ukrainian KGB Archive, f. 13, o. 678, pp. 9-27.
At a March 25, 1981, secret presentation to KGB officers, Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, warned that “I believe never before, starting from the Great Patriotic War and the ‘cold war’ years, [that the exacerbation of the international situation] hasn’t been as acutely apparent as it is now.” He then summarized the results of the recently-concluded 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and introduced the concept of Operation RYaN. He announced that there was now a need for the KGB to work to prevent a Western nuclear first strike – despite the lack of evidence that NATO had any such intentions. After summarizing the domestic and foreign policy situation of the USSR, he announced a startling new intelligence initiative: “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.”
Andropov told the intelligence service:
“The Report [to the 26th Congress] states that the imperialists are waging an arms race on an unprecedented scale, and are expediting the preparations for war. Deep and detailed intelligence operations which the US and their NATO partners are conducting against the USSR and its allies, are an integral part of this.
“As you know, one of the crucial elements of a nuclear strategy is to strike in such a way that one strike disables as many vital installations of the enemy as possible. And therefore the one who better knows the objectives, the intent and the whole nature of the military and political preparations of the other side, will gain the advantage long before the missiles hit the target. In this connection, long before the military confrontation comes around, a confrontation of the intelligence services springs to life. Our objective is to win it.
“A key role in reaching this objective belongs to the foreign intelligence service of the KGB of the USSR. Our intelligence service has a lot of experience, draws upon glorious traditions, has at its disposal loyal, well-trained personnel, and is armed with up-to-date specialty equipment. It bravely engages the enemy.
“But today we have to think about how to further increase the efficiency of the intelligence service in the face of new, more complex tasks. In short, the intelligence service needs to learn to act in a more pointed, more accurate, faster way. Its objective is not to miss the military preparations of the enemy, the main enemy [the United States], its preparations for a nuclear strike, and not to miss the real risk of the outbreak of war.”
Ukrainian KGB Archive, f. 13, o. 678, pp. 34-51.
Two months after Andropov’s March presentation (Document 1), at a secret May 25, 1981, speech to KGB leadership and officers attended by General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, Andropov further described the impetus for Operation RYaN. In 1991, Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky disclosed this speech which Andropov gave to “the astonishment of his audience” but this is the first documentary confirmation of its occurrence. The text of Andropov’s speech does not specifically use the term “Operation RYaN,” nor does it explicitly reference KGB and GRU cooperation, as Andrew and Gordievsky did. But piecing these speeches together with other contemporary Russian, East German, Bulgarian, and Czechoslovak documents largely corroborates Andrew’s and Gordievsky’s account of Operation RYaN. The head of the KGB, in the presence of the leader of the Soviet Union, instructed his intelligence agents once again not to miss “the real risk” of a Western nuclear first strike.
Andropov began a subsection entitled “intelligence” by telling the assembled KGB officers:
“The main objective of our intelligence service is 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.
The intelligence service cannot limit itself to reflecting the picture of military preparations of the enemy in general. It has to provide us concrete information about all important details, which are the only way to build a comprehensive picture of the enemy’s real actions.
We have to look at the issue of analytical work of the intelligence services from a new angle.”
(Emphasis in original.)
Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU), MfS, ZAIG 5382 p. 1-19, Hosted and translated by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, Translated by Bernd Schaefer.
During a wide-ranging conversation with East German State Security Minister Erich Mielke attended by large Soviet and East German contingents, Andropov acknowledged the important role East Germany played in providing the Soviets with intelligence relating to RYaN, thanking them in particular for providing a NATO manual to the KGB, and stated that “a substantial increase in military tensions has arisen.”
Ominously, he told Mielke that he believed a Western attack was at least a possibility: “The U.S. is preparing for war, but it is not willing to start a war. They are not building factories and palaces in order to destroy them. They are striving for military superiority in order to ‘check’ us and then declare ‘checkmate’ against us without starting a war. Maybe I am wrong.”
In his post-Cold War memoirs, long-time Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Anatoli Dobrynin stated that none of the other general secretaries for whom he had served – Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Chernenko or Gorbachev – “believed an attack could take place unexpectedly at any moment.” Andropov, he wrote, proved the “probable exception” to this. “While still head of the KGB, Andropov did believe that the Reagan administration was actively preparing for war.” Dobrynin recalled a “very private” conversation with Andropov in which he cautioned that “Reagan is unpredictable. You should expect anything from him.”
Dmitrii Antonovich Volkogonov Papers, U.S. Library of Congress, available at the National Security Archive READD-RADD Collection. Document provided by Svetlana Savranskaya.
While Yuri Andropov's 1981 KGB report to Leonid Brezhnev did not use the specific term “Operation RYaN,” it did state that the KGB had “implemented measures to strengthen intelligence work in order to prevent a possible sudden outbreak of war by the enemy.” To do this, the KGB “actively obtained information on military and strategic issues, and the aggressive military and political plans of imperialism [i.e., the United States] and its accomplices,” and “enhanced the relevance and effectiveness of its active intelligence abilities.”
The 1982 report — this time sent to General Secretary Andropov from KGB Chairman Victor Chebrikov — confirmed genuine Soviet fears of encirclement. It noted the challenges of counting on “U.S. and NATO aspirations to change the existing military-strategic balance,” and, as such, “Primary attention was paid to military and strategic issues related to the danger of the enemy's thermonuclear attack.”
These KGB reports show that that the KGB spent much effort to detect a potential Western first strike beginning in 1981.
Ukrainian KGB Archive f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 5, pp. 207-241.
After giving a series of talks to Soviet citizens in Ukraine about the need to raise vigilance, KGB agents solicited questions from the audience on a wide variety of topics. This document is a 35-page summary of the questions asked by the audience members. The questions range from domestic to foreign issues – from the situations in Poland and Afghanistan to “the hostile and negative activities” of Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The first question listed under “international” questions shows that fear of war had reached “the man on the streets.” According to the report, citizens from Lvov, Vinnitsa, Nikolaev, Chernigov, and Poltava asked: “Is the possibility of a third world war real? Will the nuclear conflict between the U.S. and the USSR be prevented? Is their collision inevitable?”
Document 98 in Vojtech Mastney and Malcolm Byrne, eds. A Cardboard Castle?: An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact 1955-1991, (Budapest: Central European Press, 2005) VA-01/40473, VA-MA translated by Sergey Radchenko.
At this meeting of Warsaw Pact heads of state, Yuri Andropov warned of an aggressive change in U.S. foreign, military, and nuclear policy. He charged that the Reagan administration now “does not hide the fact that [its new missile systems] are actually intended for future wars. Hence the doctrines of ‘rational’ and ‘limited’ nuclear war; hence, the assertions about the possibility of surviving and winning a protracted nuclear conflict.”
He also opaquely warned the Warsaw Pact heads of state about uncertainty of U.S. and NATO nuclear intentions: “It is difficult to distinguish between what constitutes blackmail and what constitutes a genuine readiness to take the final step.”
Andropov also spoke in laudatory terms about the Soviet Union’s commitment to a declared no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy. But other documentary evidence has shown that despite this stated policy, the Soviet Union did research and practice conducting a nuclear first-strike.
Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI) f. 82, o. 1 d. 37, r. 27-55, ll. 16-43. Not available to view online but available for researchers to view at the National Security Archive, READD-RADD Collection, January 11, 1983
During this conversation with Hans-Jochen Vogel, the former mayor of West Berlin, Andropov revealed that he was fearful of nuclear war through miscalculation –a danger which Operation RYaN ironically intensified. At the meeting, which focused on the pending NATO deployment of intermediate range missiles to Europe, Andropov told Vogel:
“You said that Washington does not want war. I don’t want to speak such banal truths, but the fact of the matter is that we have an accumulation of dangerous weapons…When it comes to the accumulation of nuclear weapons, it is even more dangerous. After all, at the button that activates the nuclear weapon could be a drunken American sergeant or a drug addict. There were also occasions when the Americans fired rockets at flocks of geese. And if these rockets fell in our territory, it could lead to war.”
Andropov told Vogel that he believed the Pershing II missiles would be able to “fly to our territory in close to six minutes,” as opposed to the thirty minutes it took ICBMs to reach the USSR from the American continent. Without taking responsibility for the Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missiles, the general secretary told Vogel that in response to NATO’s deployment, the USSR would deploy additional missiles to Europe aimed at the FRG. The wiser measure, Andropov concluded, would be to remove as many missiles as possible from Europe and “stop the slide toward nuclear war.”
Ukrainian KGB Archive, f. 13 o. 678 pp. 117-134.
After Andropov became general secretary of the Soviet Union, new KGB Chairman Viktor Chebrikov delivered a secret speech to KGB members confirming that “the main tactical and strategic directions” of the KGB’s remained those defined by Andropov in 1981. Chebrikov announced that due to increased aggressiveness by the United States and its allies, Soviet intelligence had “to act more decisively and in a more offensive mode.” Its primary responsibility, he noted – repeating Andropov’s earlier formulation – was “not to miss the preparations of the enemy for a nuclear strike, not to miss the real threat of the outbreak of a war.”
Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-1985, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 69-81.
This February 1983 document, originally published by Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew, shows that KGB agents were tasked with watching and reporting signs of a Western first nuclear strike while Exercise Able Archer 83 was being conducted. In fact, the cable stated that a Western nuclear attack would likely be “carried out with the utmost secrecy (under the guise of maneuvers, training, etc.) in the shortest possible time” utilizing NATO’s battle alarm system a simplified system, available to NATO countries during crisis, to launch a nuclear attack.
According to Gordievsky, each station chief in "Western countries, Japan, and some states in the Third World" received this directive on Operation RYaN. Each was addressed by name, labeled “strictly personal,” and was designated to be kept in a special file.
The directive stated: “The objective of the assignment is to see that the Residency works systematically to uncover any plans in preparation by the main adversary [USA] for RYaN [nuclear missile attack] and to organize a continual watch to be kept for indications of a decision being taken to use nuclear weapons against the USSR or immediate preparations being made for a nuclear missile attack.”
Attached to the telegram was a list of seven "immediate" and thirteen "prospective" tasks for the agents to complete and report. Tasks which were ordered to be completed by June or September 1983 included: information about where government leaders would be evacuated to during war, civil defense shelters, the level of blood held in blood banks, and activities of church leaders. KGB agents were also instructed to begin two other tasks immediately – monitoring the government and counter intelligence institutions that would be involved during a nuclear war – and to report to the Center on them “regularly,” at least once every two weeks.
Many of the assigned observations would have been very poor indicators of a nuclear attack. Others, including communications lines, nuclear decision makers, and – most significantly – missile depots, might have accurately shown whether a nuclear attack was imminent.
Also attached to the telegram was a thorough and accurate description of the likely methods by which the United States or NATO would launch nuclear war, including a summary of the five DEFCON levels, here called “operational readiness” levels. This attachment emphasized that once the West had decided to launch a nuclear attack a substantial preparatory period would be required. Moscow informed KGB agents that Operation RYaN had become “of particularly grave importance” and that the point of Operation RYaN was to “enable us to increase the so-called period of anticipation essential for the Soviet Union to take retaliatory measures,” that is to launch a preemptive strike against the West.
Department of State Freedom of Information Act Release.
Although a Western source, this classified State Department cable describes an official Soviet protest over a U.S. military jet intrusion of territory Soviet-claimed territory in the Kurile Island chain.
Since early in President Reagan’s first term, the United States had been conducting psychological military operations designed to make the Soviet Union feel vulnerable. According to a declassified National Security Agency history, U.S. warships had been sailing close to Soviet waters and launching aircraft that would head toward Soviet airspace, turning back only at the last minute. The Soviets would be forced to scramble their own jets in response. According to the history, “these actions were calculated to induce paranoia, and they did.”
These operations culminated in April and May of 1983, when three U.S. carrier battle groups comprising 40 ships undertook a massive exercise in the Pacific designed to simulate all-out war against Soviet forces. Navy aircraft conducted a mock bombing run over a Soviet military site on the Pacific island of Zeleny.
On April 3, 1983, the Soviets issued a démarche over the incident. In Washington, Chargé d'Affaires Oleg Sokolov protested to European Soviet Division Director Thomas Simons that U.S. and Soviet diplomats had treated the territorial dispute of the northern Kurile Islands as an “inactive issue” in U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1960s and 1970s and that he feared the recent U.S. Navy flyover was “intended to ‘activate’ it.”
Despite acknowledgement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Directorate of Strategic Plans and Policy that “carrier aircraft probably did pass over the Habomai chain,” the State Department rejected the Soviet complaint because it claimed that the United States officially did not view the island as Soviet territory.
On April 6, 1983, the Department of State reported that two Soviet aircraft had intruded into U.S. airspace over Nunivak Island, Alaska, “the first overflight of US airspace by a Soviet Bomber since March 1969.” Forebodingly, Sokolov reiterated his demand “that the US take the necessary measures to prevent reoccurrence of these violations, failing which it would bear responsibilities for the consequences.”
Andropov himself responded by issuing a “shoot to kill” order for any aircraft crossing into Soviet territory again.
W. Averell Harriman Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Box 655.
We now have access to both the American and Soviet records of this conversation. Averell Harriman, who had served as ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Second World War, wrote a memorandum summarizing the meeting with his own added observations and opinions. The Soviet record is a more thorough, verbatim transcript, with no analysis. The Soviet record includes, for example, Andropov’s admonition to Harriman that the current nuclear armament policies of the United States and Soviet Union would “only lead to exacerbation of the difficulties and dangers. There are no productive results from it. In the final analysis, [our actions] will lose both our countries. And they [the U.S. and USSR] are not alone. After all, it is clear that each year missed in reaching agreement – large or small – on arms limitation, poses new challenges, and complicates the task of curbing the arms race.”
Andropov opened the meeting by stating, "Let me say that there are indeed grounds for alarm." He alluded to nuclear war four times during his statement, warning “It would seem that awareness of this danger should be precisely the common denominator with which statesmen of both countries would exercise restraint and seek mutual understanding to strengthen confidence, to avoid the irreparable. However, I must say that I do not see it on the part of the current administration and they may be moving toward the dangerous 'red line.'”
In his concluding comment, in all likelihood read by the State Department which had supplied his translator, Harriman wrote, “the principal point which the General Secretary appeared to be trying to get across … was a genuine concern over the state of U.S.-Soviet relations and his desire to see them at least 'normalized,' if not improved. He seemed to have a real worry that we could come into conflict through miscalculation.”
Another Western source includes extensive verbatim statements by Yuri Andropov made during to a visiting delegation of eight democratic senators during their August 17 – 28, 1983 visit to the Soviet Union. The senators published this official report on their mission in September 1983.
The foreword to the report authored by Minority Leader Robert Byrd, and published just after the Soviet shootdown of KAL 007, stated that “That tragedy, has not, however, caused us to revise the recommendations in this report pertaining to the urgency of nuclear arms control. Indeed by demonstrating that the specter of military miscalculation is not an idle fear but a real possibility, this episode should serve as a spur to achieving limits on the superpower arsenals.”
The report contains a full transcript of the senators’ meeting with Andropov in which he warned that if an agreement on nuclear weapons deployment by the superpowers was not reached, the “increased threat of nuclear war [is] inevitable.”
The senators concluded that the KAL tragedy underlined that “despite all its sophistication, modern military power can be used rashly and in an entirely self-defeating way.”
Ukrainian KGB Archive, f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 4, pp 193-195.
On September 1, 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down civilian airliner Korean Airlines 007, which had mistakenly strayed over Soviet territory. After a bumbled military and civilian response, Yuri Andropov issued a formal statement on September 28 that untruthfully blamed the United States for a “sophisticated provocation organized by the U.S. special services, using a South Korean airplane” as “extreme adventurism in policy.”
Andropov went on to distill the Soviet Union’s view of the present state of confrontation with the United States: that the current U.S. “militarist course  represents a serious threat to peace;” that “[i]f anyone had any illusions about the possibility of an evolution for the better in the policy of the present American administration, recent events have dispelled them once and for all;” and that in the nuclear era, “transferring the confrontation of ideas into a military confrontation would cost all mankind too dearly.”
Again, the Ukrainian KGB wrote a secret report summarizing public reaction. The consensus of citizens in Ukraine, according to the KGB, was that they hoped to “curb the arms race and preserve peace” and “prevent further slipping towards nuclear war.” Some citizens “compared the current situation with the 1939-1941 period and make conclusions that both countries are currently on the brink of war.”
Dmitrii Antonovich Volkogonov Papers, U.S. Library of Congress, available at the National Security Archive READD-RADD Collection translated by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project . Document provided by Svetlana Savranskaya.
This set of documents is likely the “hard-hitting letter to all party organizations” referred to in a previously declassified National Security Council document warning of “a degree of paranoia [that] seemed rampant among high officials,” “the danger of irrational decision making,” and a “fear of war [that] seemed to affect the elite as well as the man on the street.”
This letter signed by KGB Chairman Chebrikov and its attached documents demonstrate that border protection and other “preventative” internal activities of the KGB were substantially increased, beginning in October 1983 with the goal of “strengthening law and order and increasing ideological vigilance of the Soviet people.”
In practice, this meant the wide circulation of a classified order entitled “Regarding Measures To Improve the Preventative Work Conducted by the State Security Services” to all “first secretaries of the Communist Party Committees in all Soviet republics, to the party offices in territories and regions, to heads and members of military councils, military commands, military districts, air defense districts, fleets, individual armies, and equivalents, [and offices and directorates of the Ministry of Internal Affairs],” instructing them to ramp up their efforts.
These nationwide “preventative measures” included: increased border security, increased surveillance on and reporting of Soviet citizens, the usage of mass media to promote a pro-Soviet viewpoint, the development by the KGB’s F.E. Dzerzhinsky Higher School of a study on “the theory of preventative work,” and the “shield[ing] of the military from subversive activities of the enemy.”
The order seems to tacitly acknowledge that the Soviet Union was losing “the culture war,” stating “We ought to patiently and in a targeted fashion influence those among the artistic intelligentsia and young people, who due to their political immaturity and misconceptions and without any hostile intent, spread views foreign to Soviet society.”
Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU), MfS, Abt. X, Nr. 2020, S. 1-7. Posted by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, Translated by Bernd Schaefer.
At an October 10, 1983, meeting, Deputy Chairman of the KGB Kryuchkov confirmed to East German foreign intelligence spy chief Markus Wolf that some Soviet KGB agents abroad had begun systematically reporting on indicators of a possible Western nuclear first strike. In this conversation, Kryuchkov provides a bona fide to Gordievsky’s published February 1983 cable (Document 9) by stating that the KGB intelligence directorate had given “a few assignments to some KGB resident agents abroad who have to report on them every two weeks.”
Kryuchkov attempted to explain the necessity of RYaN to Wolf by stating that “Currently strategic nuclear weapons can be used in less than 24 hours. So this is about the phase of decision-making, and about working out a system that denies the adversary the option of a surprise.”
For his part, Wolf appeared skeptical of the concept of RYaN, writing in a 1984 an appended note that RYaN “must be complemented, revised, and made more precise,” and bemoaning “the problem of not getting deceived” by faulty indicators. He concluded that “clear-headedness about the entire RYaN complex” was a “mandatory requirement.” In an addendum that Wolf drafted, he stressed the need to know the “actual situation” rather than the picture presented by Operation RYaN’s indicators. “Constant and ongoing assessments,” he wrote, “have to be made whether certain developments actually constitute a crisis or not.”
Eight days after the conclusion of Able Archer 83, Soviet Minister of Defense Dmitry Ustinov warned in Pravda that NATO’s military exercises “are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from a real deployment of armed forces for aggression.” This public admission of alarm in the pages of Pravda by the leader of the Soviet military and member of the Politburo demonstrates that Soviet leadership was aware and wary of NATO’s exercises Autumn Forge 83 and Able Archer 83.
Although the Politburo minutes from the era that are publically available do not mention Autumn Forge 83, Able Archer 83 or fears of a Western attack, the key discussions during Andropov's tenure as General Secretary did not occur in formal Politburo meetings, but at his hospital bedside. According to historian Roy Medvedev's biography, Andropov would summon his advisors, generals, and Politburo members to his hospital bed to govern the Soviet Union. It was there that Andropov was "fully engaged in the leadership of the country and the army, and the defense of the country," according to Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov.
Ustinov’s public admission of distress corroborates British and American intelligence reporting on the “unparalleled in scale” Soviet military reaction, including transportation of nuclear weapons to delivery units, suspension of flight operations other than intelligence flights, and “round the clock” military preparedness.
The relevant part of Ustinov’s quote reads in full: “The dangerous nature of the military exercises conducted by the U.S. and NATO in recent years commands attention. These exercises are characterized by an enormous scope, and they are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from a real deployment of armed forces for aggression.
“NATO's Autumn Forge-83 maneuvers, which have just ended, involved 300,000 people and large amounts of arms and combat equipment. The area of the maneuvers encompassed Western Europe, from Norway to Turkey, and included the Atlantic.”
Later in the article he stated, “The sharp exacerbation of the international situation is making ever higher demands on the level of preparedness of the Soviet Armed Forces, on the improvement of their management and on their technical equipment.
“We are also obliged to draw appropriate conclusions from the fact that the U.S. has deployed armed forces groupings prepared for war near the Soviet Union's borders and has created control systems for them. We have to reckon with the ever-growing scope and dangerous nature of the strategic offensive forces exercises conducted by the American command, as well as of exercises conducted in a NATO framework.”
This highest-level warning – translated and published in the English language of Current Digest of the Soviet Press on December 14, 1983 –combines with British and American intelligence reporting to reinforce the 1990 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory report’s conclusion that the United States “may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”
A confidential Soviet General Staff analysis of NATO exercises in 1983 published in February 1984 opened by repeating Minister of Defense Ustinov earlier warning in Pravda (Document 18) that “it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish [NATO exercises] from the real deployments of armed forces for aggression.”
The article gives a thorough review of the NATO exercises conducted in 1983 including detailed analysis of both Autumn Forge 83 (“Отэм фордж-83”) and Able Archer 83 (“Эйбл ачер-83”). Autumn Forge 83 was an annual umbrella exercise that was a large-scale simulation of conventional war in Europe; the Soviet military analysis estimated it included some 300,000 NATO troops. Following at the end of Autumn Forge 83, Able Archer 83 was a NATO command post exercise in which Strategic Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) and military cells in London and Washington rehearsed a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The analysis went on to underscore Ustinov’s stated concerns: “In 1983, [the exercises] took place on such a scale and were so close to the real combat situation that, according to Western military observers, it was difficult to catch the difference between working out training questions and actual preparation of large-scale aggression.” The “according to Western observers” may have been a “fig leaf” to allow a Soviet analyst to critique the Soviet military.
The earliest known Western account of Able Archer 83 is a brief June 1984 Washington Times article based on a leak about the CIA review of the Soviet response.
The article shows that Soviet military observers keep a keen watch on all NATO exercises, including Wintex, Autumn Forge and its components. The article notes that beginning in 1983, NATO increased its rehearsal of “limited” nuclear war, practiced deep strike air ground operations,“ and, “in some cases, [NATO rehearsed conventional attacks that] were preceded by a massive nuclear strike.”
Ukrainian KGB Archive, f. 13 o. 691 pp. 135-142.
This letter, written to members of the KGB and made public by the KGB director, describes the necessity of increased work by all KGB employees “in every line and in every direction” to counter the activities of the West. It also states – after the NATO deployment of Pershing II and Gryphon Cruise Missiles had begun – that “The most important thing is to step up the offensive mode and targeted character of all chekist efforts, and not to miss the real threat of a nuclear strike.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Federal Archives of Germany, Military Branch (BA-MA), Freiburg i. B. Call Number DVW 1/71/1040, Hosted by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, Translated by Bernd Schaefer.
At the October 1983 Warsaw Pact meeting in Berlin, to which ministers of defense were called to discuss the pending NATO deployment of Pershing II and Gryphon Cruise missiles to Europe, Soviet Minister of Defense Ustinov told his colleagues that he viewed the missiles “as means for a first strike, the ‘decapitation strike.’”
Despite Western claims that Pershing II missiles could not reach Moscow and should not be viewed as first strike weapons (the Gryphons, though slower, could), Ustinov’s speech shows that the Soviets and leaders did indeed view them as such
The range of the Pershing IIs was classified. However, the United States officially announced their range as 1,800 kilometers, long enough to reach western Russia and forward deployed Soviet forces from West Germany in less than ten minutes. But Soviet specialists feared that the missiles were even more dangerous, estimating that they had a range of 2,500 kilometers, posing a direct threat to the Soviet leadership in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev later described the weapons as “a gun pressed to our temple.”
Ustinov told the ministers of defense, “The American Pershing and cruise missiles scheduled for deployment in Europe are part of this strategy to reach superiority over the Warsaw Pact countries and to conduct a nuclear first strike.”
Central Intelligence Agency Freedom of Information Act Release, declassified 2016.
Although not a Soviet source, this National Intelligence Estimate summarizes in more than 100 pages what Western intelligence understood about Soviet beliefs, patterns, and capabilities for a war in Europe, including multiple scenarios about how such a war might begin. This NIE states that, “The Soviets believe that nuclear weapons will have a decisive impact in any future war” and that “the Soviets believe that technology has increased the importance of surprise in modern warfare and that under present conditions the achievement of surprise may greatly influence not only the outcome of initial engagements, but also the course of military operations in the initial phase of the war.”
The drafters of the NIE stated their strong belief that the Soviet Union’s preferred course of action in a war with the United States and NATO would be for a drawn-out multi-front engagement throughout Europe, but amended their conclusions in 1989 to state, “We cannot rule out the possibility, nevertheless, that during a crisis the Soviets might choose to launch a preemptive attack on NATO without taking the time to fully prepare their forces … Soviet military planners clearly recognize that it would be a political decision whether to make further preparations while attempting to defuse a crisis or to conduct a preemptive attack with available forces.”
In this interview, Col. Gen. Yesin vividly recounts his experience in charge of SS-20 medium-range missiles for the operative department of the general headquarters of strategic rocket forces during Able Archer 83. He states that his and other nuclear forces went on “combat alert” during the exercise but “didn’t have to get close to the launch” and the alert was lowered afterwards.
Yesin states that during Able Archer 83, Strategic Rocket Forces received updates about the exercise every six or eight hours. Yesin also recalled that high-level military officials were aware, and were “nervous” during the alert: “During the climax of the NATO exercise when the strategic missile forces were on heightened combat alert I can say with a high degree of confidence that [Chief of the General Staff of the USSR] Marshal [Nikolai] Ogarkov was in the protected central command point of the armed forces of the USSR.” Yesin recounted that Marshall Vladimir Tolubko, head of Strategic Rocket Forces, was also constantly informed of the exercise.
Yesin, who served in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis stated that the tension was not as high as in 1962. During Able Archer 83, “We knew that NATO was doing an exercise but not really preparing for a nuclear blow, although of course we couldn’t fully eliminate the chance that a nuclear strike might have been delivered.”
Princeton University, Mudd Manuscript Library, Don Oberdorfer Papers 1983-1990, Series 1, Soviet Interviews, 1990.
Although the former head of the Soviet General Staff, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, has accused Oleg Gordievsky’s accounts of Operation RYaN and Able Archer 83 of being “self-serving falsifications,” he nonetheless believed that Autumn Forge was one of “the most dangerous” military exercises conducted by NATO. He also stated that during the Cold War he believed “there can [could] be a war between the Soviet Union and the United States on the initiative of the United States.”
This interview of Akhromeyev by Washington Post journalist Don Oberdorfer exposes a key historiographical problem in the study of the "Able Archer 83" War Scare. The NATO exercise was generally not known as "Able Archer 83" to Soviet military or intelligence officials as it was being conducted. Soviet analysts have referred to it as "Autumn Forge 83," the name for the larger, months-long, umbrella exercise preparing for conventional war.
“Able Archer 83” was in fact the NATO command post nuclear exercise at the tail end of Autumn Forge which “culminated” when a conventional land war with the "Orange Pact" over Europe turned nuclear.
In a key exchange from this 1990 interview, Akhromeyev tells Oberdorfer that he did not remember "Able Archer 83" but that "we believed the most dangerous military exercises are [were] Autumn Forge and Reforger. These are [were] the NATO exercise in Europe.”
While Akhromeyev states that he felt no “immediate threat of war,” he adds: "I must tell you that I personally and many of the people that I know had a different opinion of the United States in 1983 than I have today . I considered that the United States is [was] pressing for world supremacy … And I considered that as a result of this situation there can [could] be a war between the Soviet Union and the United States on the initiative of the United States.”
Defense Department Freedom of Information Act release.
In 1995, the Pentagon contractor BDM Corporation prepared a two-volume study on Soviet Intentions, 1965-1985, based on an extraordinarily revealing series of interviews with former senior Soviet defense officials — "unhappy Cold Warriors" — during and after the final days of the Soviet Union. The interviews contain candid Soviet reflections on the 1983 War Scare.
One interviewee, Viktor Surikov, who had over 30 years experience building, testing, and analyzing missiles and related systems, acknowledged that a shift toward preemption had occurred on the Soviet side as well. Surikov challenged his interviewer, John Hines, alleging that "U.S. strategy and posture was to strike first in a crisis in order to minimize damage to the U.S. He added that U.S. analysts had concluded that there were tremendous differences in levels of damage to the U.S. under conditions where the U.S. succeeded in successfully preemptively striking Soviet missiles and control systems before they launched versus under conditions of a simultaneous exchange or U.S. retaliation. He said, ‘John, if you deny that, then either you're ignorant about your own posture or you're lying to me.’ I acknowledged that the U.S. certainly had done such analysis.”
Surikov believed that the basic Soviet nuclear position and posture was also preemption. Soviet General Valentin Varennikov, who served on the General Staff, corroborates this dangerous change in nuclear warfighting. He recounts that in 1983 the Soviet military conducted its own exercise, Zapad (West) 83, which, “prepared (for the first time since the Second World War) for a situation where our armed forces obtained reliable data of [an adversary's] decision made by the highest military and political leadership to launch a surprise attack, using all possible firepower (artillery, aviation, etc.) against us. In response, we conducted offensive operations to disrupt the enemy attack and defeat its troops. That is, a preemptive strike.””
Defense Department Freedom of Information Act release.
The BDM interviews conducted with the Soviet military elite at the end of the Cold War provide a retrospective glimpse into the minds of the Soviets, whom some U.S. policy makers were trying to understand better in 1983.
Andrian Danilevich, a senior military strategist who reported to Marshal Akhromeyev and authored the three-volume Strategy of Deep Operations, “the basic reference document for Soviet strategic and operational nuclear and conventional planning,” told interviewer John Hines of a general fear of war. He recalled “vivid personal memories” and “frightening situations” during “the period of great tension” in 1983, but that there was never a sense of “an immediate threat” of attack within the general staff. The KGB, he said, may have “overstated the level of tension” because they “are generally incompetent in military affairs and exaggerate what they do not understand.”
While, according to Colonel General Yesin, the Soviet General Staff raised its level of nuclear alert during Able Archer 83, it appeared to be less fearful of an imminent American nuclear strike than its KGB counterparts.
Defense Department Freedom of Information Act release.
Gelii Batenin, who worked for Marshal Akhromeyev in the General Staff, told interviewers, "I am very familiar with RYaN." He also confirmed that the situation was tense but that he personally felt no fear of imminent war. “There was a great deal of tension in the General Staff at that time and we worked long hours, longer than usual. I don't recall a period more tense since the Caribbean Crisis in 1962.”
Defense Department Freedom of Information Act release.
Vitalii Kataev, former Defense Industry Department senior advisor, recounted the situation as more dire than some of his colleagues remembered: “We in the Central Committee's Defense Department considered the early 1980s to be a crisis period, a pre-wartime period. We organized night shifts so that there was always someone on duty in the Central Committee. When Pershing IIs were deployed, there appeared the question of what to do with them in case they were in danger of falling into Warsaw Pact hands during a war. These missiles had to be launched. This made them extremely destabilizing. Furthermore, the only possible target of these missiles was our leadership in Moscow because Pershings could not reach most of our missiles.”
Varfolomei Korobushin, former deputy chief of staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces, revealed that, "it took just 13 seconds to deliver the decision [to launch a nuclear attack] to all of the launch sites in the Soviet Union."
Defense Department Freedom of Information Act release.
After acknowledging that "victory" in a nuclear war, even if achieved, would be "meaningless," General Staff analyst Vitalii Tsygichko revealed how a Soviet nuclear launch would progress:
“The plan, which was updated every 6 months, called for Soviet "launch-under-attack" [otvetno-vstrechnyi udar] using all Soviet silo-based systems. This annihilating retaliatory nuclear strike [unichtozhaiushchii otvetno-yadernyi udar] would be directed not against U.S. silos, which Soviet planners assumed would be empty, but rather against military targets (such as airfields, ports, and C3 facilities) and against the U.S. political and economic infrastructure (including transportation grids and fuel supply lines).”
During a 2006 oral history conference he warned that not all Soviets (or Americans) understood the consequences of nuclear war as well as he:
“Among politicians as well as the military, there were a lot of crazy people who would not consider the consequences of a nuclear strike. They just wanted to respond to a certain action without dealing with the 'cause and effect' problems. They were not seeking any reasonable explanations, but used one selective response to whatever an option was. I know many military people who look like normal people, but it was difficult to explain to them that waging nuclear war was not feasible. We had a lot of arguments in this respect. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there are a lot of stupid people both in NATO and our country.”
Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU), MfS, ZAIG, Nr. 6755, S. 47-50. Posted by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, Translated by Bernd Schaefer.
These Soviet monthly intelligence summaries (translated from Russian to German, and now to English) August 1986 to April 1989. Focusing on RYaN, they now serve a purpose likely never imagined by their drafters, which is to allow us to see how Soviet intelligence witnessed and reported on the peaceful ending of the Cold War.
The RYaN reports reflect the strangeness of the nuclear superpower rivalry itself. The absurd logic of the Cold War becomes evident when one reads about the NATO “elimination of intermediate and tactical nuclear missiles” in a September 1987 report incongruently entitled, “On the Results of Intelligence Activities to Report Indicators for a Sudden Nuclear Missile Attack.”
 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.
 Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 522.
 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.
 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.
 CIA Studies in Intelligence article by Benjamin B. Fischer, "The 1983 War Scare in US-Soviet Relations," Undated, circa 1996, Secret.
 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 into Soviet-claimed 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.
 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.
 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.
 “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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Roy A. Medvedev, Neizvestnii Andropov (The Unknown Andropov), (Rostov: Feniks, 1999), 379-382.
 “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.
 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.
 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.
 Interview with Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, Advisor to the President of the USSR by John G. Hines, March 5, 1990 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 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.