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Profile: Operation VRYAN
a.k.a. Operation RYAN
Operation VRYAN was a participant or observer in the following events:
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]
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]
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]
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