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The War in Orange and Blue

Thirty years ago, the West undertook a manoeuvre involving the use of chemical and nuclear arms against the USSR under the codename “Able Archer ‘83”. This only narrowly avoided the outbreak of a Third World War.

February 5, 2014 - Jacek Stawiski - Articles and Commentary

05.02.2014 pershing

Soviet inspectors and their American escorts stand among several dismantled Pershing II missiles as they view the destruction of other missile components. The missiles are being destroyed in accordance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Photo: Jose Lopez, Jr. (CC) commons.wikimeida.org

Moscow was convinced that the United States and NATO were preparing an attack on the USSR, and the West did not realise just how much Moscow feared an attack. The Soviets, not wanting to be surprised, were ready for a nuclear counterattack against Western Europe and the United States. Tensions in Europe reached their critical point during NATO’s exercises codenamed “Able Archer ‘83” in November 1983, which in their greater part were of a theoretical nature, but in the Soviet Union they were considered to be a preparation for an invasion of the USSR and countries subordinated to it. The Soviet air force (stationing, among other places, in Poland) was in a state of the greatest preparedness for war; the last time such a command was given was in the 1950s. And although the apogee of tension and of the threat of war was the “Able Archer ‘83” exercises, all of 1983 should be considered to be a critical moment in the history of the Cold War. The awareness of how close the West and the USSR were to an (even accidental) exchange of atomic blows inclined Washington, and then Moscow, to look for ways to exit the nuclear pact.

The computer says that…

It is worth beginning the story of the crisis of 1983 from 1981. For the Poles, this date is above all associated with the activity of the first Solidarity and the suffocating of the pro-freedom movement in December of that year. But as recently released documents of American intelligence show, in 1981 the KGB simulated trends in global politics with the use of a special computer programme. The simulation supposedly showed that the series of political and economic events in the world decidedly did not work in favour of the Soviet Union. One of the elements of this chain was the creation of Solidarity. Of course, this was not the only negative factor for the USSR; also named were anti-communist armed rebellions in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua as well as the difficult economic situation of Cuba. The Soviet leadership realised that Moscow is flagging in its rivalry with America and the West.

Today we know that around 1981, perhaps in 1982, the Kremlin commanded the KGB to gather information from across the world demonstrating that the West is preparing a surprise attack against the Soviet Empire. This operation was codenamed RYAN, short for rakietno-yadierniye napadnienie (“nuclear-missile attack”). Soviet intelligence agents had the duty to send to Moscow all information, and even strands of it, which was placed in their entirety in the KGB’s central headquarters and which should help visualise potential preparations for war against the Soviet Bloc. The crisis of 1983 for the better part started in March. On March 8th, President Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech in which he called the USSR an “Empire of Evil”.

The speech shocked Moscow as well as many environments in the West which were dissatisfied with the American leader for heading an ideological crusade.

Yet Reagan and his closest collaborators repeated that calling the Soviet Union an “Empire of Evil” was openly telling the truth. A couple of weeks later, on March 23th 1983, Reagan proposed his Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) programme, which its critics and the media somewhat mockingly dubbed “Star Wars”. According to Reagan’s plans, the SDI system was supposed to protect America against a nuclear attack and nullify the significance of nuclear war. The Kremlin furiously reacted to this programme. Moscow feared that America will win the technological race with the USSR and, additionally, that the atomic power of the Soviet Union – presupposing parity with the United States and the West – would turn out to be worthless. Moscow’s nervousness reached a peak in June and July when Yuri Andropov sent the Americans a warning that the international situation is so tense that nuclear war can erupt at any minute. However, Andropov’s message was not taken seriously. This further convinced Moscow that the West is preparing an attack against the USSR. We should add that Andropov was overwhelmed with an obsession about June 1941, when the Kremlin surprised the Third Reich.

There is also another reason for the nervousness in political and military Soviet circles. In 1983, NATO was preparing to deploy to Western Europe Pershing missiles with nuclear warheads. NATO made the decision to supply the missiles as early as 1979. This decision was an attempt to return balance because Moscow in the European part of the USSR and some Warsaw Pact countries already had placed SS-20 missiles. After placing the American Pershing missiles, Moscow’s strategic situation worsened: missiles from Western Europe were to reach their targets in the Soviet Union in less than 10 minutes.

A false alarm

Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States became, in fact, “chilly” after the shooting down of the South Korean commercial flight KAL 007 by Soviet planes which was flying from Alaska to Korea and insignificantly strayed away from its course and flew over a small piece of Soviet territory. A total of 269 people died, and a majority of the world’s states condemned the Soviet action. Ronald Reagan called this move “a barbarity”. Moscow tried to defend itself by saying that the airplane – although it was commercial – was undertaking acts of espionage. The universal outrage at the shooting down of the KAL 007 led the Soviet leadership to increasingly believe that the West is one step from attacking the USSR.

In September 1983, there was one more incident we learned about only after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War: on the night from September 25th to the 26th, Stanislav Petrov, deputy lieutenant of the Soviet missile defence and air force who was working in a complex outside Moscow realised that the alarm cautioning against a ballistic missile attack from the US is the result of an emergency of the computer system.

Maintaining his calm, he cautioned the world against an accidental explosion of a global nuclear conflict. This incident, of course, was not connected to the Soviet-American crisis, but years later it is worth noting that it took place in the nervous months of 1983 and shows how little was needed for a catastrophe. In the first days of November 1983, NATO undertook manoeuvres and exercises codenamed “Able Archer ‘83”. Today we know that from November 2th to the 11th the world was on the verge of atomic warfare.

In Moscow, the manoeuvres were considered to be real preparations of the West for an attack. This is why the Soviet military in Eastern Europe and atomic units around the world were in a state of the highest readiness. In the Kremlin, there were preparations for a counterattack against the US and NATO. Only three people in the Soviet Union had the permission to use nuclear arms: the head of the Communist Party (in other words, the acting leader of the country), and later the minister of defence and the army’s commander. It is worth emphasising that in this time the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was seriously ill and governed the state from a hospital bed.

The “Able Archer ‘83” was the following scenario: the ORANGE (Warsaw Pact) alliance attacks Finland, Yugoslavia, Western Europe and the Middle East, and it next decides to use chemical arms against the West. ORANGE tried to crush anti-communist uprisings in Eastern Europe with arms. The BLUE (NATO) alliance in response to the use of chemical weapons by ORANGE asked for the permission of political leaders for the use of nuclear arms. The permission is granted. As part of the exercises, there were commands simulating a nuclear attack. Because of this signal, the Soviet Union seriously anticipated an attack. Fortunately, the simulated use of nuclear arms was the last act of the war scenario. The manoeuvre ended on November 11th. The real attack from the West anticipated by Moscow did not occur. The nuclear alarm in the USSR was cancelled. Two months after “Able Archer ‘83”, Yuri Andropov, who as the chief of the KGB was the mind behind Operation RYAN.

Years later, it was discovered that these 10 days in November 1983 were the hottest moment of the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Robert Gates, the former chief of the Pentagon who then worked for the CIA, today believes that the tensions from the autumn of 1983 were all the more horrifying as the West did not entirely understand how much the USSR feared an attack. Interestingly, on the basis of declassified memoranda and American documents it can be inferred that when the reports about the nervous reactions of the Soviets arrived at the desk of President Ronald Reagan himself he asked his advisors if the Soviets were bluffing or if they genuinely fear nuclear warfare. The president and his team realised that they should try to resolve Soviet fears and lessen Cold War tensions. Since 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Kremlin, the road to Soviet-American agreement about the gradual levelling of the threat and the beginning of nuclear disarmament began to take real shape.

An empire with feet of clay

Shortly after finishing the “Able Archer ‘83” manoeuvres, the deputy chief of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council Herbert E. Meyer prepared a special brief for his superiors, including the head of the CIA. This document was strictly confidential and was titled “Why Is the World So Dangerous?” Meyer asked what the Soviet leaders are preparing and what the condition of their state is like. His conclusions written at the end of 1983 (today, they are available in the American archives) can shock with their accurate diagnosis. Meyer says that after a decade of global successes in the 1970s, from the early 1980s the Soviet Union is on the defensive, and the predicted demise of the United States’ power is not at all coming. The USSR is experiencing colossal economic problems, it is increasing its budget at the expense of the development of the country, and the demographic trends are suggesting a shrinking of the empire’s Russian-language population and signalise a growth of Muslims, towards whom the Russians are not well-disposed.

The brief also states that the USSR as a multinational state had failed. Additionally, the economic, political and military costs of maintaining a powerful empire – including its European, Asian and Caribbean parts – were growing. Of course, Poland played a part in weakening the empire, and especially costly was Moscow’s economic life support for Cuba. Perhaps the most important conclusion of the brief was that if the Soviet Union would not catch up to and overtake America – which did not seem likely – it would never do so. Meyer wrote that the Kremlin would have to decide whether it will accept its fate or try to radically preclude the collapse of the empire, causing a war, for example. If the Soviet comrades choose the second option, the world will again find itself on the threshold of a military conflict. But Herbert Meyer also wrote that “third and fourth-level” comrades see the need for essential reforms in the state. Today, we can judge that Meyer’s report essentially accurately predicted Perestroika.

In 1983, for the first time in the 20th century the world was on the threshold of nuclear war. Two or three years later, both superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – were on the road to moving away from hostility and cold war. Three decades after the crisis of 1983, it is worth mentioning how little remained for history to take an entirely different shape, that is if there still would have been history.

While writing this text, I used documents from the National Security Archive as well as archives from the CIA and American State Department.

This text appeared in issue Nr. 6 (XXXII) 2013 of Nowa Europa Wschodnia.

Translated by Filip Mazurczak

Jacek Stawiski is a journalist and commentator for TVN24. He leads the Horyzont programme.


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