Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cold War Turns Hot?! Part II

Then came KAL 007. The Soviet shootdown of the Korean airliner on September 1, egregious error that it was, proved less damaging to U.S.-Soviet relations than Moscow's initial inclination to deny everything. Kremlin confusion increased because Yuri Andropov, sick with failing kidneys, had left Moscow for a Black Sea resort, his vacation becoming a convalescence. His absence from Moscow left various sectors of the Soviet apparat adrift. Washington was willing to fish in these troubled waters. Reagan's NSDD-102 declared that “Soviet brutality in this incident presents an opportunity to reverse the false moral and political ‘peacemaker’ perception that their regime has been cultivating.” There followed a series of acrimonious charges in Washington and Moscow, and the release of American recordings of radio chatter by the Soviet interceptor pilot and his controllers, which showed the fighter plane had fired without much thought for the target. Both sides alleged deception.

Secretary of State George Shultz recalls the KAL 007 incident as the end of a superpower “minithaw” summer during which Soviet concessions on human rights had opened a way to progress. That view is far cheerier than the recollections of Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, who had yet to get in to see President Reagan and who would be prevented from attending the United Nations General Assembly when U.S. authorities refused to assure landing rights and security for his airplane. Gromyko met Shultz in Madrid on September 8 to discuss European issues, but the secretary of state proved determined to press the Russians on human rights and KAL 007. Following a chilly private talk, Shultz heard Gromyko tell the larger group, “Problem number one for the whole world is to avert nuclear war.”

Don Oberdorfer, the distinguished diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, told an audience in 1993 that “Ronald Reagan was not the man I thought he was. It was a scary time from [my] perspective.” President Reagan had the Russians where he wanted them. He held the high ground in terms of propaganda and had determined to exploit the Soviet error in the KAL 007 incident. He had frightened Moscow with the Strategic Defense Initiative, had continued nuclear programs that posed dangers to Soviet nuclear forces, and had stood at the point of deploying Euromissiles that directly threatened Moscow's command-and-control centers and its political leadership. The question is: Had Reagan thought through the consequences?

According to Gromyko's memoir, at the Madrid meeting the Soviet foreign minister did not confine himself to a simple statement of the main problem. Rather, speaking “in the name of the Soviet leadership,” Gromyko went on, “The world situation is now slipping toward a very dangerous precipice. It is plain that the great responsibility for not allowing a nuclear catastrophe to occur must be borne by the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. together. In our opinion, the U.S.A. should reevaluate its policies, and the president and his administration should look at international affairs in a new way.”

No one on the American side took the point. The Russians were evil, had massacred innocent passengers, and so on. A number of senior Soviet officials, from Georgi Arbatov to Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Moscow's man in Washington, would later agree that the KAL shootdown was a blunder. But Dobrynin would also observe that Washington's criticisms were “hasty and dangerous accusations,” and there can be no doubt that the Soviet leadership as a whole felt the same way. Though sophisticated Russians figured the checks built into the American political system minimized the risk of an unprovoked first strike against the Soviet Union, that never became a uniform belief. Yuri Andropov himself, according to Dobrynin, stood as a “probable exception” (my italics) to the view that “an attack could take place unexpectedly at any moment, like Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.” Ominously, in the Soviet system, only Andropov's hand rested on the nuclear button.

As it had been when he was director, the KGB remained responsive to Andropov's moods. Operation RYAN was in full swing. In mid-June 1983, just prior to leaving for what became his sickbed, Andropov remarked that there had been an “unprecedented sharpening of the struggle” between East and West.

KGB stations assumed a posture of increased readiness. Yasenovo followed up on August 12 with a supplement to the list of war indicators KGB officers were supposed to track. Stations were to report every two weeks. Moscow center wanted new items of intelligence that must have had KGB officers pulling their hair out. These included warning of increased intelligence efforts against the Warsaw Pact; dropping of agents and/or equipment into the U.S.S.R. or Pact countries; CIA and National Security Agency liaison with other NATO intelligence agencies; infiltration of sabotage teams; appearance of special security detachments; and increases in Western disinformation efforts. What, if anything, KGB stations reported in response to this directive remains unknown. However, the Soviet practice of fulfilling production “norms,” or quotas, and Moscow's continued alarm suggest that the KGB received at least some data that Yasenovo interpreted as preparation for war.

Other world developments heightened the sense of emergent crisis. Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, who had defied the Soviet-backed Communist government of his country, received the Nobel Peace Prize in early October. The United States exhibited outrage after a bombing in Beirut that destroyed a barracks and killed almost 250 U.S. Marines. Only days later, the Americans invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada, a friend of Moscow's ally Cuba. Washington appeared to be in an aggressive mood.

In this charged atmosphere occurred a NATO military exercise called Able Archer 83, scheduled to last from November 2 through November 11. A socalled command post exercise in which only headquarters and higher echelons participated, Able Archer tested “nuclear release procedures.” While the U.S. government obviously would have the key role in ordering the use of such weapons in wartime, the decision would have to be ratified by a standing committee of NATO national representatives, part of the chain of command. Getting a decision through this network could take half a day or more, and its awkwardness required that the system be regularly exercised. The initial plans had called for President Reagan himself to participate in Able Archer, though the maneuver was scaled back at the last moment. Had Able Archer occurred as first planned, no doubt it would have been of even greater concern to the KGB. More White House and Pentagon windows certainly would have been lit at night.

In any case, Soviet intelligence apparently panicked. According to Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB observed a change in the message formats NATO used, the kind of thing that often happens as a security device when military operations commence. The NATO command posts also transitioned through every level of readiness from peacetime activity through full alert. On November 6, Gordievsky reports, Moscow transmitted a further appeal for KGB officers to search for RYAN indicators. On either November 8 or November 9, he says, there followed a “flash” message to KGB posts ordering an unprecedented “superalert.”

There is some doubt that the superalert was actually ordered. American analyst Raymond Garthoff, among our foremost experts on Russia, concludes in a study of the end of the Cold War that any such alert would have been kept very quiet by Soviet intelligence. Garthoff interviewed a number of key Moscow officials, including the first deputies to the foreign minister and chief of the general staff, and the chief of the international department of the Communist Party, and no one had any recollection of an alert. Mikhail Gorbachev, then a Politburo member, also said the matter never came before that body. On the other hand, Gorbachev affirms the general proposition that 1983–84 proved the most delicate moment in the superpower relationship. Ambassador Dobrynin confirms that he heard of the KGB alert from his rezident in Washington. The CIA also apparently learned later from different sources that Soviet military intelligence was put on a state of high alert.

Certain concrete actions of a military nature did take place. All sources agree that a Soviet nuclear-armed tactical bomber regiment based in East Germany went on combat alert. Some others report that Russian commanders were told to take steps to secure their aircraft, ships, and weapons against surprise attack.

Fortunately for all, November 11 came and went with no move by the West, and Able Archer also ended. However, just days later, the first Euromissiles actually arrived in Europe. Moscow walked out of arms control talks, with Andropov complaining it was impossible to do business with partners like the United States.

The Russians had sabers of their own to rattle. During 1983 there were nineteen Soviet nuclear weapons tests, plus nine so-called peaceful nuclear explosions. In 1984 came another eighteen tests and eleven explosions. There were also a multiplicity of missile tests, including the beginning of testing for the large SS-24 ICBM and the mobile SS-25. Though suffering from numerous malfunctions (over half its trials were rated failures in the West), the SS-24 testing program proceeded at a rapid rate. The SS-25 program went smoothly and, if anything, even more rapidly. In submarine-based missiles, the Soviets were flight-testing their SSN-23 and conducting submerged launches from Typhoon-class submarines of the SSN-20 to test ranges in the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean.

In military maneuvers for the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, American experts were told later, the scenarios used in 1982 and 1983 featured practice of the technique known as “launch under attack”—that is, nuclear preemption by means of offensive missile attack (in response to a confirmed attack by the other side, while the enemy's missiles are still in the air). Even more ominous, the 1984 scenario for Soviet nuclear exercises featured a U.S. surprise attack combined with a Soviet preemptive response.

Soviet defense minister Dimitri Ustinov put a public spin on developments in mid-December 1983, when he addressed a convocation of Soviet war veterans. “Imperialism is not all-powerful,” Ustinov thundered. “Its threats do not frighten us. The Soviet people have strong nerves.” The danger of such posturing lay in its fueling a cycle of misperception that could lead to crisis and war. Luckily, Ustinov chose this moment to soothe as well as warn. “No matter how complicated the political-military situation,” Russia's defense minister declared, “there is no point in overdramatizing it.”

Americans, too, were beginning to heed the drift in superpower relations. “We got their attention,” Robert McFarlane is quoted as saying at about this time. “Maybe we overdid it.” McFarlane's NSC director for Soviet and European affairs, seasoned diplomat Jack Matlock, had suggested the need to cool the other side's fears with some conciliatory rhetoric. McFarlane told Matlock to draft a presidential speech, which he did in conjunction with Shultz's State Department and White House political mavens. Later, professional speechwriters redid the first draft. As Able Archer ended, the speech stood ready, though there were as yet no plans for Ronald Reagan to mouth any of its fine phrases.

At the CIA, meanwhile, concern developed about Moscow's pessimism. Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey was hearing increasingly ominous news. Reports from Oleg Gordievsky, filtered through British intelligence, supplied the basic picture. The CIA also picked up the bomber alert in East Germany as well as certain changes in Russian communication patterns. Intelligence sources say the Soviets, though not all at once and not in an operational sequence, rehearsed every step they would take in starting a nuclear war.

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