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Context of 'February 17, 1983: USSR Issues ‘High Alert’ for Intelligence Program Monitoring US Plans to Launch Surprise Nuclear Attack'

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The US begins launching what the Pentagon calls “psychological operations,” or PSYOPS, against the USSR. The operations consist in part of military exercises designed to agitate and frighten the USSR into believing the US might be preparing for a military assault. Few outside of the White House and the Pentagon’s top officials—and Soviet officials, of course—know about the series of provocative exercises. Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle will later recall: “It was very sensitive. Nothing was written down about it, so there would be no paper trail.” The idea behind the operations is to keep the Soviets off-balance about what, if anything, the US might do. It also is designed to probe for gaps and vulnerabilities in the Soviets’ early warning intelligence system. General Jack Chain, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) commander, will later recall: “Sometimes we would send bombers over the North Pole and their radars would click on. Other times fighter-bombers would probe their Asian or European periphery.” Sometimes the operations send out several probes in a week, coming at irregular intervals to make the effect that much more unsettling. Then the probes stop, only to begin again several weeks later. Undersecretary of State for Military Assistance and Technology Dr. William Schneider will later recall: “It really got to them. They didn’t know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home.” The operations include naval incursions as well as aerial missions, with US aircraft carrier groups regularly conducting exercises alarmingly close to Soviet military and industrial sites, often without being detected until the groups are already in place. Some exercises simulate surprise attacks on Soviet targets, sometimes simulating air assaults on Soviet fighter units. The naval pressure is particularly intense in the area of the North Atlantic called the “Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap.” [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: William Schneider Jr., Fred C. Ikle, US Department of Defense, Jack Chain

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Yuri Andropov, the head of the Soviet KGB intelligence agency, tells a group of KGB officers that the US is actively preparing for war with the USSR, and warns of “the possibility of a nuclear first strike” by the Americans. The KGB describes the program thusly: “One of the chief directions for the activity of the KGB’s foreign service is to organize detection and assessment of signs of preparation [for a surprise nuclear attack] in all possible areas, i.e., political, economic and military sectors, civil defense and the activity of the special services.” Andropov, who will become the head of the Soviet government in 1982, helps direct the KGB and GRU (the Soviet military intelligence agency) to make preparations for that strike its top priority. The agencies instruct Soviet agents in NATO capitals and Japan to make “close observation[s] of all political, military, and intelligence activities that might indicate preparations for mobilization.” The program, called VRYAN (the Soviet acronym for “Surprise Nuclear Missile Attack”), takes even greater priority once Andropov rises to power. [Fischer, 3/19/2007; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 134] (Others such as CIA researcher Benjamin Fischer will refer to the program in their writings as “Operation RYAN.”) Fischer will write that VRYAN, or RYAN, is based on “genuine fears” among the Soviet military and political leadership. Andropov’s KGB in particular feels that the international situation, or what the Soviets call the “correlation of world forces,” is “turning against the USSR and increasing its vulnerability.” In conjunction with the Reagan’s administration hardline stance towards the Soviet Union, an increase in US-led military exercises and psychological warfare missions conducted close to Soviet borders, and an increase in the US’s ability to thwart Soviet early warning systems, this perception prompts the Soviets to not only voice their concern over the possibility of a US first strike, but to prepare for it. Fischer also notes that in some ways, Operation VRYAN and Moscow’s uneasiness over the US threat is sparked by bitter memories of Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 surprise invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis. The program, Fischer will write, abandons caution and the usual tradecraft of intelligence-gathering, and instead relies on often-unreliable data supplied by East German intelligence sources. [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: Operation VRYAN, Yuri Andropov, Benjamin Fischer, KGB, Russian Military Intelligence (GRU)

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Reagan officials reopen the stalled Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union, against the advice of President Reagan’s more hardline officials (see January 1981 and After). The talks center on the Soviets’ SS-20 missile, designed to strike European targets. In return, then-President Carter had agreed to deploy US intermediate-range nuclear missiles—Pershing II’s and Tomahawks—in West Germany and Italy by 1983. According to author J. Peter Scoblic, the missiles have little real military value, as American ICBMs, submarine-based nuclear missiles, and long-range bombers could destroy Soviet targets with near-impunity. They do, however, have some political significance, mostly in helping tie European security to US security. Carter had agreed to open talks with the Soviets to get rid of the SS-20s entirely.
Hardliners Sabotage Talks - The more pragmatic Reagan officials succeed in reopening the talks; Reagan hardliners, thwarted in stopping the talks, set about sabotaging them in any way available. When arguments in favor of delays and “further study” finally fail, they pressure Reagan to offer an agreement they know the Soviets will refuse: the so-called “zero option,” which originates with Defense Department official Richard Perle (see Early 1981 and After). Perle says that the Soviets should remove all of the SS-20s, and in return, the US will not deploy its Pershings and Tomahawks—in essence, having the Soviets concede something for essentially nothing. State Department officials suggest a fallback position in case the Soviets reject Perle’s offering; in his turn, Perle appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee and compares anyone who opposes his zero-sum offering to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1938.
'Walk in the Woods' - When the Soviets reject Perle’s option, Reagan hardliners argue that the government should accept no compromise. The head of the INF negotiation team, Paul Nitze—a Cold War figure who has come out against arms control (see January 1976) but is not fully trusted by the hardline ideologues because of his history as an arms negotiator—wants a compromise. In official negotiations, he sticks to the all-or-nothing position of Perle, but opens private, informal negotiations with his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky. One afternoon in 1982, Nitze and Kvitsinsky go for what later becomes known as their “walk in the woods.” Sitting together on a log during an afternoon rainstorm, the two hammer out an agreement that greatly favors the US—mandating a 67 percent reduction in Soviet SS-20s and allowing the US to deploy an equal number of Tomahawks. Not only would the Soviets have to reduce their already-deployed contingent of missiles and the US be allowed to deploy missiles, because the Tomahawks carry more independent warheads than the SS-20s, the US would have a significant advantage in firepower. The deal also sets limits on SS-20 deployments in Asia, and forbids the Soviets from developing ground-launched cruise missiles. In return, the US would agree not to deploy its Pershing missiles.
Hardliners Block Agreement - Perle and his hardline allies in the Reagan administration succeed in blocking acceptance of the Nitze-Kvitsinsky agreement. As author J. Peter Scoblic later writes, “Perle’s ideological obstructionism—concisely conveyed in his disparagement of Nitze as ‘an inverterate problem-solver’—reached fantastic heights.” Perle first tried to block Reagan from even learning the details of the agreement, and lied to Reagan, asserting falsely that the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the agreement. Perle, in conjunction with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, eventually convinces Reagan to stick to the “zero option.” Perle argues against pressure from key US allies such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, telling Reagan, “We can’t just do something; we’ve got to stand there—and stand firm.” In 1983, Perle tells Weinberger that it would be better for the US to deploy no missiles at all than to accept the agreement. Scoblic will write: “In other words, he argued that foregoing deployment in return for nothing was better than foregoing deployment in exchange for something. The position made no sense, but the Reagan team held firm to it, once again preventing the adoption of a viable arms control deal.” When the US deploys Pershing missiles in Europe in November 1983, the Soviets walk out of the talks. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 120-123]

Entity Tags: Richard Perle, Margaret Thatcher, Joint Chiefs of Staff, J. Peter Scoblic, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Nitze, Ronald Reagan, Reagan administration, Senate Armed Services Committee, US Department of State, Yuli Kvitsinsky

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

In another speech excoriating communism, President Reagan promises the British Parliament that “the march of freedom and democracy… will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expressionism of the people.” He promises that the “forces of good [will] ultimately rally and triumph over evil,” and says that the West cannot successfully coexist with communist regimes: “Must freedom wither in a quiet, deadening accomodation with totalitarian evil?” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 116-117]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

One of five secret, underground ‘control rooms’ built by East German intelligence to help coordinate a Soviet counterattack against a US first strike.One of five secret, underground ‘control rooms’ built by East German intelligence to help coordinate a Soviet counterattack against a US first strike. [Source: Central Intelligence Agency]By the beginning of 1983, the world seems closer to a nuclear holocaust than it has since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The idea of detente between the US and the Soviet Union has been all but abandoned, and European allies of the US use the term “Cold War II” to describe the new, chilly relations between the two superpowers. French President Francois Mitterrand compares the situation to the 1962 Cuban crisis and the 1948 confrontation over Berlin. American Cold War expert George Kennen says that the confrontation has the “familiar characteristics, the unfailing characteristics, of a march toward war—that and nothing else.” While there is little confrontation between the two in a military sense, the tensions are largely manifested in the rhetoric of the two sides, with President Reagan calling the USSR an “evil empire” (see March 8, 1983) and declaring that American democracy will leave Soviet communism on “the ash-heap of history” (see June 8, 1982). In return, Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov calls Reagan “insane” and “a liar.” The Soviet propaganda machine releases a storm of invective against Reagan and the US in general, comparing Reagan to Adolf Hitler and America to Nazi Germany. CIA analyst Benjamin Fischer will later write, “Such hyperbole was more a consequence than a cause of tension, but it masked real fears” (see May 1981). The Soviets are particularly worried about the US’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), the Pershing IIs, to be deployed throughout Europe (see September 1981 through November 1983), as well as the Americans’ new cruise missiles, the Tomahawks. Once those missiles are in place, the US, if it so desired, could destroy most of the Soviets’ own ballistic missile sites with only four to six minutes’ warning. The Soviets’ own plans for pre-emptive strikes against the US have the destruction of the European Pershing and Tomahawk emplacements as a top priority. [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: Francois Mitterrand, Benjamin Fischer, Yuri Andropov, George Kennen, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

The KGB, the Soviet intelligence directorate, issues a “high alert” for its Operation VRYAN intelligence alert system monitoring the US for signs of a possible military and nuclear assault (see May 1981). Provoked by two years of US military provocations (see 1981-1983), fearing that the rhetorical war between the US and the USSR (see Early 1983) is ready to explode into something far more concrete, and disheartened by worries that the Soviet Union is losing ground in its global contest with the US (see Early 1981), the Kremlin informs all KGB “rezidenturas,” or station chiefs, that VRYAN has “acquired an especial degree of urgency” and is “now of particularly grave importance.” Forty station chiefs receive new orders marked “strictly personal,” instructing them to organize a “continual watch” using their entire operational staff. They are also ordered to redirect existing agents who might have access to VRYAN-related information, to recruit new agents, and to escalate surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations. [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: Operation VRYAN, KGB

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan gives his famous “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. The speech is designed to dissuade Christian evangelicals from supporting a freeze on the production and deployment of nuclear weapons, as the Conference of Catholic Bishops had already done. The speech, written by Anthony Dolan, a follower of hard-line conservative philosopher William F. Buckley, is what author J. Peter Scoblic calls “a model conservative blend of religious traditionalism and anticommunism [that makes] explicit the link between Manicheanism and nuclear war fighting.” The cause is not merely peaceful co-existence, but an apocalyptic battle between good (the West) and evil (the Soviet empire), one that must be won no matter the costs. “We must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man,” Reagan tells his listeners. “We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin. There is sin and evil in the world, and we are enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” Supporting the nuclear freeze movement would be to commit the sin of moral relativism, Reagan says, putting moral strictures aside for temporal, even political concerns. “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride,” he warns, “the temptation of blithely declaring yourself above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 117]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Anthony Dolan, J. Peter Scoblic, Conference of Catholic Bishops

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Korean Airlines Flight 007 before takeoff.Korean Airlines Flight 007 before takeoff. [Source: Check-Six (.org)]A Soviet Su-15 fighter plane fires two missiles into a Korean Airlines 747 passenger plane, KAL 007. The plane, en route from Alaska to Seoul, South Korea, had strayed into Soviet air space, had not responded to radio communications, and had either ignored or not seen warning shots fired at it. The 747 crashes into the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 passengers, including conservative House Representative Larry McDonald (D-GA) and 62 other Americans. The Soviets insist that the passenger plane was deliberately sent into their airspace to test their military readiness; later investigation shows that a US spy plane had just left the area, agitating Soviet radar units, and, according to their own radio transmissions, the Soviets had honestly believed the 747 was another spy plane, most likely an American RC-135. Though it has definitely strayed into Soviet airspace at least twice, and flown over a sensitive Soviet airbase on the Kamchatka Peninsula, it is most likely shot down in international airspace. [Fischer, 3/19/2007; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 131]
Angry White House Officials Respond - Reagan administration officials are furious. Secretary of State George Shultz, dubbed “The Sphinx” by journalists for his remote demeanor, rails at the Soviets in a press conference called just four hours after the White House learns of the incident. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 131] Four days later, Reagan will denounce the Soviets in a primetime televised speech (see September 5, 1983).
Massive PR Campaign against USSR - The US will use the shootdown to mount a tremendous public relations campaign against the Soviets, focusing on the Soviet civilian leadership as well as Soviet international business interests; for example, the US will demand a global boycott of the Soviet airline Aeroflot. According to a memo issued to the Politburo by the Defense Ministry and the KGB, the Soviets well understood the political ramifications of the shootdown: “We are dealing with a major, dual-purpose political provocation carefully organized by the US special services. The first purpose was to use the incursion of the intruder aircraft into Soviet airspace to create a favorable situation for the gathering of defense data on our air defense system in the Far East, involving the most diverse systems including the Ferret satellite. Second, they envisaged, if this flight were terminated by us, [the US would use] that fact to mount a global anti-Soviet campaign to discredit the Soviet Union.” In its own counter-propaganda efforts, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov will say that an “outrageous military psychosis” has taken over US foreign policy. He adds, “[T]he Reagan administration, in its imperial ambitions, goes so far that one begins to doubt whether Washington has any brakes at all preventing it from crossing the point at which any sober-minded person must stop.” [Fischer, 3/19/2007]
Exacerbating Tensions - After the shootdown and its aftermath, according to the Soviet ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, both sides go “a little crazy.” The shootdown gives the US hard evidence of its worst-case assumptions about the Soviets. For the Soviets, the US reaction gives them hard evidence of their own assumptions about the US’s attempts to provoke the USSR into some sort of confrontation (see 1981-1983) and to embarrass the Soviet Union in the eyes of the world. Reagan’s use of the KAL 007 incident to ask Congress for more defense funding is, in the Soviets’ eyes, proof that the entire incident was engineered by the Americans for just such an outcome. [Fischer, 3/19/2007]
Alternative Accounts - A number of alternative accounts about the incident spring up, in particular concerning McDonald. [Insight, 4/16/2001]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Anatoly Dobrynin, Larry McDonald, Yuri Andropov, Steven Symms, George Shultz

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Test firing of a US Pershing II IRBM.Test firing of a US Pershing II IRBM. [Source: US Army / Public domain]The US and its NATO allies carry out a military exercise called “Able Archer,” or “Able Archer 83,” designed to simulate the use of nuclear weapons in an assault against the Soviet Union, and to test command and control procedures. The military exercise comes perilously close to touching off a real nuclear exchange with the USSR. The exercise—not the first of its kind, but the most expansive—is huge, spanning Europe from Turkey to Scandinavia; it involves the heads of state of countries like Great Britain and Germany; and, perhaps most alarmingly for the Soviets, involves NATO forces escalating their military alert levels to DEFCON-1, at which point NATO nuclear weapons have their safeguards disabled and are ready for launch. The Soviet’s VRYAN program to detect a possible assault (see May 1981) is extremely active. On November 8, Moscow sends high-priority telegrams to its KGB stations in Western Europe demanding information about a possible surprise first attack on the USSR. Though little actual evidence exists, some sources erroneously tell Moscow that NATO ground forces are mobilizing. The KGB concludes that “Able Archer” is a cover for a real military assault; Warsaw Pact fighter units armed with nuclear weapons are put on alert in East Germany and Poland. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 134-135; Cardiff Western News, 11/10/2008]
'Frighteningly Close' to Nuclear War, Says Soviet Intelligence Official - Oleg Gordievsky, the intelligence chief of the Soviet embassy in London and a British double agent, warns the British that the West is entering what he calls a “danger zone.” The Daily Telegraph will later write, “It was on Nov. 8-9 that the Kremlin had pressed what came close to a panic button.” [Washington Post, 10/16/1988] In his memoirs, Gordievsky will write: “In the tense atmosphere generated by the crises and rhetoric of the past few months, the KGB concluded that American forces had been placed on alert—and might even have begun the countdown to war.… [D]uring ABLE ARCHER 83 it had, without realizing it, come frighteningly close—certainly closer than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.” [Fischer, 3/19/2007]
Reagan 'Shocked' at Soviet Reaction - The exercise ends without incident, but National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane will later admit, “The situation was very grave.” Secretary of State George Shultz terms the exercise “a close call” and “quite sobering.” In early 1984, when the CIA reports that the Soviets had been convinced that the US was readying a nuclear strike, President Reagan will be, in author J. Peter Scoblic’s words, “shocked” to realize that he and his administration “had nearly started a nuclear war.” Reagan, in McFarlane’s recollection, will show “genuine anxiety” and begin talking about the concept of Armageddon—the Biblical end times—with his advisers. [Fischer, 3/19/2007; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 134-135]

Entity Tags: Operation VRYAN, Ronald Reagan, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, KGB, J. Peter Scoblic, George Shultz, Robert C. McFarlane, ’Able Archer’, Central Intelligence Agency, Oleg Gordievsky

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

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