Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Cold War Turns Hot?! Part I
Reagan administration officials in 1983 were intensely focused upon an ideological competition with the Soviet Union over arms control and the so-called Euromissiles, intermediate-range missiles that both sides were deploying in Europe then. The Americans downplayed the military threat to the Russians posed by the quick-reacting Pershing II missiles that formed part of their own deployment program, and spoke of Soviet “disinformation” attempts to affect the opinions of Western Europeans living with Euromissiles in their midst. (There are, in fact, documents, including annual KGB reports from this period, revealing Russian claims to have influenced peace movements in Western Europe.) Some former U.S. officials still argue that the Soviets conjured an apocalyptic vision of the American threat, then somehow succumbed to it themselves, believing that “the Americans were coming.” This much is beyond dispute: The Soviets were fearful in 1983, and Reaganauts were so wedded to their own propaganda messages that they were oblivious to the signs of discomfiture in Moscow. Moreover, unlike 1948, in 1983 fingers on both sides of the Cold War divide rested upon nuclear hair triggers.
The strategic situation in 1983 was not what appeared on the surface, at least from the Soviet point of view. Americans were used to the rhetoric of the “window of vulnerability,” a slogan current in the 1980 election, which denoted a time frame in which the United States was supposedly in special danger of being disarmed by a nuclear missile attack. But readers might be surprised to learn that during the final months of the Carter administration, it was the Russians who came to the Americans with a detailed briefing from their own secret data, showing a substantial and growing U.S. threat to Soviet nuclear forces. Beyond the exaggerations and the real meaning of the data (that both sides were vulnerable, depending on who went first), the point is that in 1981, going into the Reagan administration, Moscow had already demonstrated concern over U.S. military intentions.
American weapons programs lent some weight to these concerns. On its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the United States was installing a new guidance system called the NS-20, as well as higher-yield warheads. The new instrumentation greatly reduced the time necessary to change an ICBM's target; held more targets in constant memory; and substantially improved accuracy. In combination with the increased power of the nuclear weapons it carried, each Minuteman III warhead would have excellent prospects against even the most deeply dug-in Russian missile silos. The Peacekeeper, a bigger ICBM carrying ten warheads (there were three in the Minuteman), stood on the verge of deployment. In submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), the Americans were developing an improved Trident missile warhead called the D-5 that made sea-based missiles as deadly as ICBMs against hardened targets. As for Russian SLBMs, American designers were seeking new ways to target missile submarines. Meanwhile, American war planners were “gaming out” flexible response scenarios that allowed for the limited use of nuclear weapons, potentially lowering the nuclear threshold.
The KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky, who rose to be the deputy rezident (chief of station) in London, had become a double agent spying for the British. In KGB: The Inside Story, which he coauthored with British historian Christopher Andrew, Gordievsky reports a May 1981 conference among senior KGB officials in that agency's foreign intelligence headquarters at Yasenovo, a Moscow suburb. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev addressed the assembly, but his somber speech proved only the warm-up for the astonishing pessimism of KGB director Yuri V. Andropov, who told the Russian spymasters they were to begin a special effort to detect American preparations for nuclear war. The Soviets even gave the operation a name, RYAN, for the Russian phrase raketno-yadernoye napadenie (“nuclear missile attack”).
Planning and central coordination for RYAN became the responsibility of the KGB Institute for Intelligence Problems. When Gordievsky saw the initial orders that summer, he noted that data on actual nuclear weapons received a relatively low priority. A higher premium was placed on indications of U.S. or Western alliance decisions for war. Some Soviet embassies, like that at Helsinki, were instructed simply to monitor the number of windows lit up in Western embassies at night. These and additional requirements applied to KGB stations in London, Washington, and elsewhere. In 1982 the chief of the KGB institute went to Washington as the new KGB rezident.
According to George Blake, the KGB double agent with British intelligence who defected to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, another member of the small circle of British defectors in Moscow, Donald Maclean, got wind of the consternation at high levels in Soviet leadership. Maclean wrote a paper criticizing Soviet weakness in becoming mesmerized by U.S. nuclear forces. The result, he argued, was undue influence in the Kremlin by the Soviet high command. According to Gordievsky and Andrew, the KGB's American experts believed that Director Andropov's alarmist views were being fueled by the Soviet military. In fact, Russian defense minister Dimitri F. Ustinov was among the most hard-line voices on the Politburo, a fact known at the CIA and among American foreign policy experts as well as at Yasenovo. To make things worse, Brezhnev's health failed, and before the end of 1982, Yuri Andropov emerged as the new top leader in the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the indications coming from Washington were alarming to the Soviets on both diplomatic and military fronts. On the diplomatic side, the Americans seemed to show no interest in a summit. On the military side, about the time Andropov came to power, the U.S. press featured a leak of a secret Pentagon document, the Fiscal Year 1984–88 Defense Guidance, which mandated programs designed to enable the United States to “prevail” in a nuclear war. The leaks dovetailed closely with Reagan administration budget requests for new communications networks designed to function in a nuclear environment and for a new airborne command post to serve the president in time of war. American strategists were simultaneously beginning to talk of “decapitation,” the idea of wiping out the adversary high command through a series of strikes aimed specifically at centers of government and prearranged evacuation sites.
In February 1983 a KGB document later published by Gordievsky shows Moscow giving its rezidenturas (intelligence stations) an overstated briefing regarding U.S. nuclear capabilities, plus a new list of intelligence reporting requirements. These included identifying specially equipped blast and fallout shelters, evacuation data on government officials, data about blood supplies acquired by the government, and places visited by officials most frequently outside working hours. One suggestive instruction: “Keep under regular observation the most important government institutions, headquarters, and other installations involved in preparation for RYAN.”
It is worth noting that these instructions from the KGB's Moscow center, with their hint of immediate alarm, are dated almost three weeks before Ronald Reagan's “evil empire” speech of March 8, 1983. In introductory comments to this text in a collection of his speeches, former president Reagan writes, “At the time [this speech] was portrayed as some kind of know-nothing, archconservative statement that could only drive the Soviets to further heights of paranoia and insecurity.”
On March 23, two weeks after the “evil empire” speech touched off the KGB's latest jitters over Soviet-American relations, Reagan spoke from the Oval Office and proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). As the president's national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, makes clear in a memoir, the SDI program, particularly in the highly technological form President Reagan selected—with such frills as space-based laser weapons—represented more of a wish than a weapon. McFarlane admits, “I was a little worried about the scientific community.” Some of McFarlane's subordinates on the National Security Council (NSC) staff go further and admit that SDI was a piece of gimmickry, more a tool for intimidation than a real program. The hasty launch of the entire program is epitomized in the fact that Reagan's formal decision for an SDI, contained in a directive called National Security Decision Document 85 (NSDD-85), is dated two days after the president's speech.
In contrast to NSDD-85, there was no quality of afterthought about U.S. policy on the Soviet Union. On January 17, 1983, President Reagan had signed NSDD-75, which laid down his Soviet policy. With respect to military strategy, the memorandum had specified: “Soviet calculations of possible war outcomes under any contingency must always result in outcomes so unfavorable to the U.S.S.R. that there would be no incentive for Soviet leaders to initiate an attack.” Reagan's order had much more to say about Cold War competition, technology transfers, economic and geopolitical policy, and the like, but the war scare of 1983 would flow from the military strategic propositions of the policy.
It is a tenet of nuclear strategy that the side in distress, outclassed by the adversary, may maximize its limited chances by shooting first. That is the foundation for such bits of nuclear jargon as “launch on warning” or “preemptive attack.” As 1983 opened, the Kremlin feared an American strategic nuclear advantage, and NSDD-75 shows the Reagan administration indeed intended to act from a position of strength. The addition of SDI to the mix suggested the United States sought means to neutralize such Soviet forces as might remain following an initial nuclear exchange. Computer models show that SDI might have considerable impact blunting a retaliatory attack (“second strike”) but relatively little against a first strike. No doubt the secret war games of the Soviet general staff (and American Joint Chiefs of Staff) showed the same thing. The net effect of these developments would be that a weak adversary at some point would be forced to choose between launching a nuclear war by preemption, to preserve its “deterrent,” or permitting itself to be disarmed.
This point was appreciated in the Kremlin, and it sparked far more than a debate about esoteric strategies or stochastic nuclear exchange models. In Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, Yuri Andropov commented on Ronald Reagan's SDI just four days after Reagan's presentation. Accurately enough, Andropov summarized Washington's aim as “an intention to secure the potential with ballistic missile defenses to destroy the corresponding strategic systems of the other side, that is, to deny it the capabilities to mount a retaliatory strike, counting on disarming the Soviet Union in the face of the American nuclear threat.”
On top of these developments, the NATO allies were making final preparations for deploying America's Euromissiles as the summer of 1983 began. Two U.S. systems were involved, the ground-launched cruise missile and the Pershing II. The latter would be an accurate ballistic missile with the range to reach Moscow—and with a much shorter flight time than ICBMs based in the United States. The Pershing II posed a threat to Russian command centers, making the possibility of “decapitation” concrete. The Soviets, in turn, might be expected to use force against those places where Euromissiles were deployed, which terrified the peoples of Western Europe. For several years, peaking as the Euromissiles were about to be installed, political protests and demonstrations on nuclear issues roiled around this controversial program. In Bonn, West Germany, alone, more than five hundred thousand people took to the streets in just one of the 1983 demonstrations. But the Reagan administration refused to be deflected and moved steadily toward Euromissile deployment scheduled for the fall. This impending development, combined with lack of progress in arms control talks, cast a pall over the Kremlin. Throughout the summer, the Soviets made private and semipublic threats to walk out of arms negotiations.