As I was watching the terrible conflict between Russia and the Ukraine on my television and hearing about the river of artillery, rockets and ammunition flowing in to support the Ukrainian defence I was reminded of a time when such a development was considered inconceivable. The memory of the U.S. airlift of men and equipment from Fort Bragg in the U.S. to Shymkent in Kazakhstan in 1997 seems to have been forgotten. I remember it well.
On September 15,1997 the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division arrived in force on Air Force C-17 Globemaster IIIs and parachuted into a drop zone located in Sayram, Kazakhstan. The exercise was called "Centrazbat '97". The parachute jump was the culmination of the longest distance airborne operation in history for Exercise Central Asian Battalion '97. Exercise Central Asian Battalion '97 involved more than 900 military personnel from Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, some of whom had undergone training at Fort Bragg to hone their skills in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. They trained in Fort Bragg and flew to the drop zone without intermediary stops. The exercise was designed to enhance regional cooperation and increase interoperability training among NATO and Partnership for Peace nations. The exercise was held in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, and Chirchik, Uzbekistan.
More than 1,300 troops took part in the exercise, which was called by officials at the U.S. Atlantic Command, the "longest-distance airborne operation in history." Approximately 500 American and 40 Centrasbat troops flew non-stop to Kazakhstan, covering a distance of more than 13,000 kilometres to engage in complex air and ground operations with the participating nations. The event grew out of a request from "Centrasbat," or the Central Asia Battalion -- a security organization formed in 1996 by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with the aim of training and readying military units for future multi-national peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.
Although the tactical reasons behind such an operation were important in establishing ties, communications and mutuality of interests between the U.S. military and the forces of the new militaries outside the control of the former USSR, the political aspects were equally important. Under the Yeltsin presidency (1991-1999) the ties which had bound these former satellite nations with Russia were loosening and Yeltsin desired to create a forum for discussions of mutual self-interest with these new states and, at the same time, not seem to be in conflict with NATO by creating a working relationship under CIS which might be seen as a competitive organisation. Inviting the co-operation of the U.S. in partnering with these states in the Partnership for Peace was an important step. The Partnership was a U.S. initiative. The Partnership for Peace (PFP) was launched by the January 1994 NATO summit to establish strong links between NATO, its new democratic partners in the former Soviet bloc, and some of Europe's traditionally neutral countries to enhance European security. It provided a framework for enhanced political and military cooperation for joint multilateral activities, such as humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and crisis management and enabled Partners to improve their interoperability with NATO. It enabled PFP members to consult with NATO when faced with a direct threat to its security but did not extend NATO Chapter 5 security guarantees. Participation in PFP did not guarantee entry into NATO, but it assisted states interested in becoming NATO members.
The creation of such a partnership was facilitated earlier by the creation of a common forum linking retired Russian military with retired U.S. military. I, and my twin sister, were involved in the early steps in the formation of “Operation Jeremiah” which brought a selected number of retired Russian officers to the U.S. (the first meeting was at West Point) to set up a permanent liaison committee of retired U.S. and Russian officers. These were serious people and included among them: General A Burlakov (head of the Western Group of troops in Germany); Marshal. E. Efimov (Marshal of Aviation); Admiral V. Konevski (Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Fleet); General S. Kostomin (Army Chief Engineer); General V. Lobov (General of the Army and Professor of Military Science); General G. Smoilovich (Head of Military Science); Admiral V. Sidorov (Commander of the Pacific Fleet), General A. Vashin (Presidential Adviser on Military Affairs); Admiral Shalatonov (Deputy of the Marine Centre); and Marshal N. Skomoronov (Head of the Airforce Academy) Several were Heroes of the Soviet Union and Skomoronov was twice Hero of the Soviet Union and Chairman of the Heroes of the Soviet Union Club. There were others as well.
We helped arrange a reception for them in the U.S. through liaison with the Pentagon with several current and retired U.S. generals and admirals. This Operation Jeremiah was not designed for public attention, but it did establish a good connection between the two sides and smoothed over many possibly uncomfortable misunderstandings and conceived the Partnership for Peace. The Russian officers I met were very well-qualified professionals and extremely aware of the importance of maintaining this direct link with the U.S. They were very pleasant to be around and well-informed. Unfortunately, this Operation was short-lived. While it had the support of Yeltsin it did not have the support of his successor, Putin. The Russian military supported this continuing engagement, but the KGB thought otherwise.
In October 1988, with the replacement of Chebrikov as the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov became its Head. General Kryuchkov (to give him his quasi-military rank) was not a career intelligence officer but a Party bureaucrat. He was put in charge of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB in 1974 by Andropov. He was an Andropov man who had worked with Andropov in the Komsomol and the Party, He later became friendly with another Andropov man, Mikhail Gorbachev who in 1988 raised Kryuchkov from the First Chief Directorate to the Head of the KGB. This was the first time in the history of the KGB that someone from the First Chief Directorate (Foreign Intelligence) had risen to the top of the agency. It also marked the spread of the “Saratov Mafia” of Andropov and his friends.
Kryuchkov, although learning a great deal from listening to his staff, was as paranoid as the rest of the Soviet political leadership. With the US maladroit handling of the shooting down of the airplane KAL007 over Russia the Soviets became obsessed that this was the precursor to a NATO first strike with nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union. They postulated an Operation RYAN in which scenario the Soviet Union would be pre-emptively bombed with nuclear weapons. This happened on Andropov’s watch and involved Kryuchkov, then still in the FCD, as the chief analyst. Andropov issued blistering denunciations of Reagan’s policies and took to his bed in a prolonged period of vituperative decay. The Soviet government was in turmoil. In October Lech Walesa had just been given the Nobel Prize and the U.S. invaded Grenada. The next week NATO began a routine exercise, Able Archer 83, which the KGB took as proof of an imminent surprise attack. Nothing happened and, as Able Archer 83, concluded and everyone went home tensions lessened. However, the arrival in the UK and Germany of Cruise and Pershing missiles drove the tensions back up again.
These were relieved slightly at the death of Andropov in February 1984 and the accession (for a year and a bit) of Konstantin Chernenko as General Secretary of the Party. Kryuchkov’s FCD kept up the pressure internally within the KGB to find out more about Operation RYAN, with little success largely because there was no Operation RYAN. The Soviets had passed through a major crisis in the belief that the West was about to attack. The concern was not only for the safety of the USSR but a deeper concern that there was very little the Soviets could do to stop it other than Mutual Assured Destruction. It was too expensive to continue on this path and they were rapidly running out of options. This later presented Yeltsin with a way to lessen internal tensions and put additional controls on the KGB by assisting the military.
Despite the resistance of the KGB, the Partners for Peace was successful in familiarising the various Bloc militaries with NATO and airlifts like the 1997 mobilisation to Kazahkstan continued to build up goodwill. As it happened, my company had an office in Shymkent with several staff who were well-known to the South Kazahkstan officials. We were asked about gathering information on the operation in social chatting. We found that the local militaries liked the training at Fort Bragg and, especially, liked the equipment brought on the airlift which was left behind in country after the exercise was over.
When I look back at how well it all went; how pleasant and unconflicted the contacts were between NATO and the former Bloc nations it saddens me to think that today’s situation is so different and dangerous. It is a pity.