Military history

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Four days after Reagan’s speech, Andropov lashed out. He accused the United States of preparing a first-strike attack on the Soviet Union, and asserted that Reagan was “inventing new plans on how to unleash a nuclear war in the best way, with the hope of winning it.” But Reagan’s hazy vision was not Andropov’s deepest fear. Rather, it was the looming deployment of the Pershing II missile in Europe, which the Kremlin thought could reach Moscow in six minutes. The Soviets felt events were turning against them.

Starting in the late 1970s, under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union had deployed the Pioneer missile, known in the West as the SS-20, with 243 missiles aimed at Western Europe and 108 targeted on Asia. The Pioneer had a maximum range of 3,100 miles, more than enough to hit Paris and London, but it was classified as medium or intermediate range, less than the big intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov said “astronomical amounts of money were spent” on the Pioneer. But, he added, “The short-sighted Soviet strategists had handed the Americans a knife with which to cut the Soviet throat.”1 In response to the Pioneer deployments, NATO decided in 1979 to station 108 single-warhead Pershing II and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, in range of the Soviet Union, as a counterweight while seeking to negotiate. Reagan had proposed in 1981 to eliminate this entire class of medium-range missiles, but the Soviets refused and negotiations went nowhere.2

By 1983, Andropov was consumed with the threat of the approaching Pershing II missile deployment, expected in West Germany in December. The Pershing II was feared for its accuracy and speed—the missile could fly at nearly Mach 8, greater than six thousand miles per hour, and carried high-precision guidance systems. The ground-launched cruise missile could fly under radars. These were the weapons that the Soviet leaders feared could lead to decapitation. The Pershing IIs were so worrisome that builders of the Moscow antiballistic missile system were urged to alter it to detect and intercept them.3

Andropov and the Politburo met on May 31, the day after Reagan and leaders of the Western industrial democracies had concluded a summit in Williamsburg, Virginia. Although they quarreled privately over the missiles, the Western leaders issued a statement calling on the Soviet Union to “contribute constructively” to the arms control talks.

The statement triggered irritation in the Politburo. According to minutes of the meeting, the aging Soviet leaders wrestled with how to stop the Pershing IIs and ground-launched cruise missiles. Not one word was spoken in the meeting specifically about Reagan’s antimissile speech or his grand dream. The Politburo members sounded uncertain, without new ideas. Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov insisted, “Everything that we are doing in relation to defense we should continue doing. All of the missiles that we’ve planned should be delivered, all of the airplanes put in those places where we’ve designated.”4

Andropov’s fear of the Pershing II missiles ran through his instructions to the KGB to keep watch for signs of a nuclear attack. The February document that Gordievsky had leaked to the British described, in an attachment, how advance knowledge of a possible attack would give the Kremlin precious minutes to ready retaliation. The instructions said, “For instance, noting the launching of strategic missiles from the continental part of the USA and taking into account the time required for determining the direction of their flight in fact leaves roughly 20 minutes reaction time. This period will be considerably curtailed after deployment of the ‘Pershing 2’ missile in the FRG [Federal Republic of Germany], for which the flying time to reach long-range targets in the Soviet Union is calculated at 4–6 minutes.” The instructions added, “It is thus fully evident that the problem of uncovering the threat of RYAN must be dealt with without delay.”5

Gordievsky said the KGB agents in London were constantly being urged by Moscow to spread propaganda against the Pershing II missiles. “We discussed it quite a lot in the meetings in the morning with the military attaché,” he recalled. “He said, ‘They fly from Britain to Moscow in eight minutes! And they penetrate underground bunkers.’ Apart from that, there were a number of telegrams. Develop a campaign! Develop a campaign! Use all your contacts in order to develop a propaganda campaign against the Pershings and the cruise missiles as well! They were very worried.” The Kremlin leaders “knew they would be the first to die, and didn’t want to die.”6

The Soviet quest for intelligence about a possible attack also extended to East Germany. The KGB assigned a major role in the operation to East German intelligence under Markus Wolf. By the early 1980s, Wolf said in his memoirs, “with the U.S. rearmament program and the advent of the aggressive Reagan administration, our Soviet partners had become obsessed with the danger of a nuclear missile attack…” His intelligence service “was ordered to uncover any Western plans for such a surprise attack, and we formed a special staff and situation center, as well as emergency command centers, to do this. The personnel had to undergo military training and participate in alarm drills. Like most intelligence people, I found these war games a burdensome waste of time, but these orders were no more open to discussion than other orders from above.” In 1983, the East Germans completed five years of construction on project 17/5001, an underground bunker near the village of Prenden, outside of Berlin, to house the leadership in the event of nuclear war. The bunker was a sealed mini-town that would have protected four hundred people for two weeks after a nuclear attack.7

Of Andropov’s fifteen months in power, half his time was spent in the hospital. During a working holiday in February 1983, Andropov’s health suffered a sharp decline. “He had had kidney trouble all his life, and now it seemed his kidneys had given up altogether,” wrote Volkogonov.8 The Kremlin doctor, Yevgeny Chazov, recalled that Andropov’s kidneys failed completely. Andropov’s doctors decided to put him on an artificial kidney. A special ward was set up for treatment twice a week at a Moscow hospital.9 Andropov started to have trouble walking. That summer, Andropov’s colleagues had an elevator installed in the Lenin Mausoleum so he would not have to endure the stress of walking eleven and a half feet up the steps.

At the May 31 Politburo meeting, Andropov called for tougher propaganda against Reagan and the West. “We need to show more vividly and broadly the militaristic activities of the Reagan administration and countries of Western Europe supporting it,” he said. Andropov also suggested that such propaganda would “mobilize the Soviet people” on the economic front. But at the same time, there was a downside.

“Certainly,” he said, “we shouldn’t frighten our people of war.”

Ever since the previous autumn, as Andropov’s paranoia deepened about a possible nuclear missile attack from Western Europe, there had also been ominous new threats on the Pacific horizon. The United States carried out extensive war games, realistic and provocative, off the Soviet coast in the Far East. In late September 1982, two U.S. aircraft carriers, the U.S.S. Enterprise and the U.S.S. Midway, sailed within three hundred miles of the Soviet Union’s major Pacific Fleet base at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. This was the only Soviet base in the Far East with direct access to the open ocean and home to the Delta-class ballistic missile–carrying submarines. The base was at the end of the sparsely populated Kamchatka Peninsula. After brushing by the peninsula, the American ships sailed south along the Kuril Islands, including four islands held by the Soviets since World War II but claimed by Japan, before entering the Sea of Japan on October 3. During the exercise, the Enterprise was the subject of extensive Soviet air, surface and underwater surveillance, according to the records of the commanding officer, R. J. Kelly.10 Later in the autumn, while in the Indian Ocean, the Enterprise happened upon a Soviet aircraft carrier, the Kiev. The commander decided to use the ship to carry out “a practice long-range strike against the surface force.” The Enterprise sent several aircraft on a mock attack against the Soviet ship. A navy intelligence official said the planes flew “seven hundred nautical miles toward the Kiev, made contact, visual contact, with the Kiev and then came back.”11

In these war games, the Enterprise, a nuclear-powered supercarrier, 1,123 feet long, was the center of Battle Group Foxtrot, made up of a dozen ships, accompanied by bombers and refueling tankers in the skies and submarines below. They were secretly collecting electronic intelligence, watching how the Soviet forces responded, monitoring their communications and radar. The exercises reflected the “forward strategy” of the navy secretary, John Lehman, to confront the Soviets in waters close to home. Lehman said his “forward strategy” meant always “keeping the Soviets concerned with threats all around their periphery.” Lehman sought to build a six-hundred-ship navy, including fifteen carrier battle groups, and the navy had been a major beneficiary of Reagan’s rearmament program.12

Reagan had also secretly approved psychological operations against the Soviets. The point was to show the United States could deploy aircraft carrier battle groups close to sensitive Soviet military and industrial sites, apparently without being detected or challenged early on. In the Pacific, the U.S. forces charged toward Soviet bastions to see how they would react. As one intelligence official put it, they wanted to go up Ivan’s nose.13

In the weeks after Reagan’s speech on strategic defense, the United States ratcheted up the pressure. In April and May 1983, the U.S. Pacific Fleet conducted its largest exercises since World War II in the North Pacific, off the Kamchatka Peninsula. Forty ships, including three aircraft carrier battle groups, participated in a massive exercise code-named FLEETEX 83-1. The Enterprise left Japan on March 26 and was joined by the Midway four days later. They sailed north through the Sea of Japan and out the Tsugaru Strait together, meeting the U.S.S. Coral Sea on April 9. For about two weeks, all three carriers conducted a counterclockwise sweep of the northwestern Pacific Ocean. The exercise involved twenty-four-hour flight operations off the Enterprise, attempting to force the Soviets to react by turning on radars and scrambling aircraft to meet intruders. The exercise was explicitly aimed at rehearsal for antiaircraft and antisubmarine warfare, showing how the three-carrier battle group would support other forces in the event of all-out conflict. Watkins, chief of naval operations, later told Congress that such exercises were designed to show the Soviets that the United States would not be intimidated. “Our feeling is that an aggressive defense, if you will, characterized by forward movement, early deployment of forces, aggressiveness on the part of our ships, is the greatest deterrent we can have,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1984. “And the Soviets really understand that. We can get their attention with that concept … We can make a difference. Kamchatka is a difficult peninsula. They have no railroads to it. They have to resupply it by air. It is a very important spot for them, and they are as naked as a jaybird there, and they know it.”14

On April 4, the Americans flew up Ivan’s nose. According to author Seymour M. Hersh, the Midway slipped away from the other carriers after shutting off all electronic equipment that could be monitored by the Soviets. The Midway steamed south toward the Kurils and the Soviets did not track it. A group of at least six navy planes from the Midway and the Enterprise violated Soviet borders by flying over the island of Zelyony in the Kuril archipelago, which stretches between Kamchatka and Japan. Hersh described it as “a flagrant and almost inevitable error, triggered by the aggressive fleet exercise and the demand of senior officers for secret maneuvers and surprise activities.” The navy subsequently told the State Department the flyover was an accident. But the larger, more aggressive maneuvers were clearly a part of Lehman’s deliberate strategy. The Soviets protested in a formal message to the American Embassy in Moscow on April 6.15

At the time of the flyover, Gennady Osipovich, an experienced pilot, was stationed at an air base, Sokol, on Sakhalin Island, a long, thin volcanic peninsula that stretches north-south along the other side of the Sea of Okhotsk from Kamchatka. Osipovich, a stolid man with thick black hair streaked gray, was deputy commander of a regiment. For thirteen years he had been flying the Su-15 interceptor, a fast but fuel-guzzling, twin-engine fighter designed in the 1960s to stop enemy bombers in an attack. The interceptors could reach twice the speed of sound but not remain aloft for long; they had limited auxiliary fuel tanks. Moreover, once airborne, pilots had to follow precise orders for their every move from the ground controllers. The job of the interceptors was to scramble fast and stop the intruder. There was little individual discretion or initiative.16

In the spring of 1983, Soviet pilots were haggard from the war of nerves with the Americans. They were constantly chasing and responding to spy planes that buzzed the Soviet borders. Osipovich had flown more than one thousand missions to intercept them. Unfortunately, the navy F-14 flyover of Zelyony Island in April caught them by surprise. According to Osipovich, the American planes zoomed in for fifteen minutes during a period when fog shrouded the island. The violation of the Soviet border brought trouble for the pilots; an investigating commission was established to probe how they failed. “After that incident,” Osipovich recalled, “a commission flew out to the regiment and gave us a dressing-down. They really berated us.” When the commission left, the commander told the pilots that if there was ever air combat over the Kurils, they would not have enough fuel to get back home and would have to eject from their planes somewhere over land to save their own lives. The stress was enormous. “For several weeks we kept our guns at the ready and waited,” Osipovich said. The tension only abated some in the months that followed. He was so stressed out, he said, that he was urged to take a vacation.

After the three-carrier battle group exercise at the end of April, the Enterprise steamed for San Francisco Bay. The carrier had been away from a port for thirty days, the longest single stretch of the year. When the navy studied the Soviet reactions to the exercise, they were puzzled. While the Soviet air monitoring was heavy, the surface surveillance was “nearly non-existent,” Kelly noted in one report. Another commander recalled that despite the unique nature of the exercise—the only one using three carriers in decades—“the Soviet reaction was mild.” The Soviets sent their standard Bear and Badger aircraft by every other day. “The primary adversary for all considered was the weather,” the commander said, which included fog, low temperatures, high winds and low visibility.

After the exercise, however, the Soviets learned much more about what the Americans were doing. The ship had sent 57,000 messages and received more than 243,000 during the year; encrypted electronic communications were the backbone of the navy’s system of command. In the communications room, some of the sensitive paper messages were quietly spirited away by Jerry Whitworth, forty-four, the senior chief radioman, a lanky, bearded sailor who had served more than twenty years. He hid the messages in his locker. Whitworth had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1976 as part of a ring led by another navy veteran, John Walker. Whitworth met Walker between two and four times a year, giving him twenty-five to fifty rolls of undeveloped film from a small Minox camera carrying some of the most ultra-secret information of the Cold War, including the cryptographic keys that unlocked the navy’s electronic communications around the world. Thus, for years, the Soviets had been reading the navy’s mail.17

On this cruise, undetected, Whitworth stole paper copies of the messages about the fleet exercise. He also made tape recordings of his observations. “We’ve been playing a lot of games with the Russians while we were in the I.O.,” or Indian Ocean, he dictated one night. “There was a Russian carrier, Kiev … It was down there and we played a lot of games with her. And now we’re up in Japan and Korean area and we’ve been surveiled every day by the Russians. Every day. Flashed messages all over the place. They’ve been disrupting our flight operations too. Which pisses off the air devils. It kind of makes me laugh to tell you the truth …”18When the Enterprise returned to its home port in Alameda, California, on April 28, 1983, Whitworth possessed nearly the entire playbook of the exercise, including messages about the F-14 flyover. Whitworth had decided to end his espionage, but he had one more load of documents to share with Walker. Whitworth photographed about one-third of the messages he had taken from the ship with the Minox camera, but he deliberately put the lens out of focus so the film would be useless; he was holding back, perhaps as an insurance policy to get more money in the future. However, wanting to give Walker something valuable, he included the actual documents about the F-14 intrusion into Soviet airspace. They met June 3, 1983, and Whitworth gave Walker a large envelope filled with films and documents. Walker scribbled notes on the back of the envelope as Whitworth briefed him. “All messages … secret and one top secret,” Walker wrote. He delivered the film and documents to the KGB wrapped in a plastic garbage bag at a dead drop on June 12, 1983.

At a time of profound worry about nuclear war, the Kremlin had been given an original, firsthand look at U.S. war games. Vitaly Yurchenko, a top KGB official who defected to the United States in 1985, told U.S. officials that the Walker spy ring was “the most important operation in the KGB’s history,” and had led the Soviets to decipher more than one million encrypted messages. Whitworth provided the Soviets with a full year of operational message traffic from the U.S.S. Enterprise, some of it top secret, and compromised the operations order for FLEETEX 83-1, a navy damage assessment later discovered.19 Among other things, Whitworth compromised the plans for “primary, secondary and emergency communications” to be used by the president to link up with military forces. The damage assessment found the information given the Soviets by the Walker spy ring would “give the Soviets an ability to make almost real-time tactical decisions because they knew the true strength of our forces, their plans for combat, the details of our logistic support and the tactical doctrine under which our forces operated.”20

Four days after Walker’s drop of the plastic garbage bag of secrets to the KGB, Andropov told the Central Committee that there had been an “unprecedented sharpening of the struggle” between East and West. And Moscow KGB headquarters sent an alarmist telegram to residencies in the United States and other European capitals, stressing the high priority of the RYAN intelligence-gathering operation, and claiming the Reagan administration was continuing preparations for nuclear war.21

Reagan was buffeted by one crisis after another in the spring and summer of 1983. On April 18, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was destroyed by a massive explosion, which killed seventeen U.S. citizens, including the senior CIA analyst for the Middle East, and forty others. When the caskets came home on Saturday, April 23, it was a traumatic moment for Reagan. “I was too choked up to speak,” he recalled. Shultz was pushing for greater engagement with Moscow while Clark was resisting. At one point Clark proposed to Reagan that he take over the Soviet account. Shultz threatened to resign. Reagan was “visibly shaken,” Shultz recalled, and asked him to stay on.

In early July, Reagan decided to write a personal letter to Andropov, perhaps another test of whether he could reach out on a human level to a Soviet leader. Reagan drafted his letter in longhand. He wrote,

Let me assure you the govt & the people of the United States are dedicated to the cause of peace & the elimination of the nuclear threat. It goes without saying that we seek relations with all nations based on “mutual benefit and equality.” Our record since we were allies in W. W. II confirms that.

Mr. Sec General don’t we have the means to achieve these goals in the meetings we are presently holding in Geneva? If we can agree on mutual, verifiable reductions in the number of nuclear weapons we both hold could this not be a first step toward the elimination of all such weapons? What a blessing this would be for the people we both represent. You and I have the ability to bring this about through our negotiations in the arms control talks.

Scratched out by Reagan, after the last words of his longhand draft, was another mention of his goal, “reduction talks that could lead to the total elimination of all such weap.” Had he sent the letter he wrote, it would have been an extraordinary document, the first time any president ever tabled such a sweeping proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. But the letter never left the White House. The next morning, Reagan gave the draft to Clark, who consulted experts on the White House staff. They were astonished that Reagan would suggest wiping out all nuclear weapons. On July 9, Clark wrote to Reagan suggesting that references to nuclear weapons be taken out of the letter, so the Soviets wouldn’t be tempted to raise the ante at the stalled Geneva arms negotiations. Reagan agreed, and sent a formulaic letter to Andropov on July 11.22 Andropov and Reagan exchanged two more letters that summer, but nothing came of them. Andropov told a group of visiting U.S. senators that the Soviet Union would ban anti-satellite weapons if the United States would do the same, but the offer was brushed off by the Reagan administration. Reagan headed for his 688-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains. After August 12 he wrote nothing in his diary for the rest of the month. For two weeks, he concentrated on building a wood fence at the ranch. It was finished August 30, 1983.23

Kremlin fears of a nuclear missile attack were growing ever more intense. On August 4 in Moscow, Andropov insisted at a Politburo meeting that “maximum obstructions” be put in the way of the deployment of American missiles in Europe. “We must not waste time,” he said.24 On August 12, new instructions from Moscow landed at the London residency. These instructions, marked “top secret” and signed by KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, were an attempt to figure out if the intelligence services of the West were somehow helping prepare for a nuclear attack.

The sixteen-point checklist was largely a mirror image of the Soviet contingency plans for war with the West. The KGB agents in Bonn, Brussels, Copenhagen, London, Oslo, Paris, Rome and Lisbon were told to watch out for such things as “a sharp increase in the activity of all forms of intelligence,” especially on the readiness of Warsaw Pact forces; possible positioning of agents to awaken sleeper cells in the East to “operate in wartime conditions;” closer coordination between the CIA and Western spy agencies; an “increase in the number of disinformation operations” against the Soviet Union and its allies; “secret infiltration of sabotage teams with nuclear, bacteriological and chemical weapons into the countries of the Warsaw Pact;” and expanding the network of sabotagetraining schools and émigrés and setting up sabotage teams with them. The instructions strongly reflect the police state mentality of the KGB. They were looking for signs of what they would do in the event of war, such as imposing military censorship and postal censorship, or restricting people from using the telephone and telegraph.25

When Gordievsky returned to London on August 18, 1983, after a long break in Moscow, he resumed meeting his British handlers. Gordievsky said he immediately passed to the British the latest KGB instructions on nuclear missile attack.26

Gordievsky had once taken part in meetings at KGB headquarters about the RYAN operation, but he regarded the whole thing as foolish. “My reaction was very simple,” he said. “I said it was just another folly.” He found his KGB colleagues also took the demands from Moscow with skepticism. “They were not seriously worried about the risk of nuclear war,” he recalled, “yet none wanted to lose face and credit at the Centre by contradicting the First Chief Directorate’s assessment. The result was that RYAN created a vicious spiral of intelligence-gathering and evaluation, with foreign stations feeling obliged to report alarming information even if they did not believe it.” Gordievsky and others fed the vicious spiral: they clipped newspapers and passed the clippings along as intelligence.

But when Gordievsky brought the cables from Moscow to the British, they took them quite seriously. They worried about the deep paranoia. They copied the documents and sent them to the CIA.

The elements were now in place for a superpower miscalculation. Andropov had urgently raised the prospect of a nuclear attack in the telegrams about the RYAN intelligence-gathering operation. Reagan had escalated the rhetoric with his “evil empire” speech and announced his futuristic Strategic Defense Initiative in March. Documents from the U.S.S. Enterprise about the navy’s F-14 flyover and the provocative naval exercises off the Soviet coast in April were now in Soviet hands. The threatening Pershing II missiles were nearing deployment in Germany. The interceptor pilots on Sakhalin Island had already been burned once, and were warned not to let it happen again.

Into this maelstrom of suspicions and fears flew a large, stray bird.

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