Twenty miles to the west of Moscow, next to an exclusive suburb, is a wood of tall silver birch trees. Forty years ago in the centre of this wood was a heavily guarded building surrounded by a 3m high concrete wall. It was known variously as the Kremlin Hospital or the Kuntsevo Clinic, a medical foundation reserved for senior Communist Party members. The comforts were in line with what party comrades would expect. Every patient had full-time nursing care and access to the best doctors in the Soviet Union.
In the first week of November 1983 there was much activity around this secret clinic. The doctors and nurses spotted members of the Politburo in their absurdly large Zil limousines coming and going. Men in crisp military uniforms appeared and departed on a regular basis, looking anxious. The clinic had become the permanent home of a particularly important resident. In a large and airy first-floor room with a fine view over the woods, Yuri Andropov, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the nation’s leader, was a special patient. Aged 69, Andropov had taken over from Leonid Brezhnev after his death a year before. But Andropov was not a well man. In the summer he began regular treatment for kidney disease. Kidney dialysis machines were still unusual in the Soviet Union but Andropov, of course, had access to the best technology. However, the dialysis was draining him, physically and mentally. His face became unnaturally pale and his voice grew hoarse. In the old days he would get up and greet every visitor with an outstretched hand. But now he never got up from behind the working table set up in his room in the clinic. To those around him, it was clear he was growing frailer and frailer.
In the Soviet Union, illness among top officials was seen as a sign of weakness. So the Soviet people were not told that their leader was unwell. They were repeatedly told he was taking a break in a resort on the Crimean coast. The road from Moscow to the clinic was heavily guarded by police and military. Only visitors with special permits were allowed through.
A frequent visitor, driving the short distance out from central Moscow in his long black limo, was the defence minister Dmitri Ustinov. A stocky, tough-looking man, he had built up the Soviet strategic bombing force and their intercontinental ballistic missile system from the 1960s. He was a close friend and political ally of the hardline, ailing Soviet leader.
On the evening of Wednesday, November 9, everything appeared to come to a head. Andropov and Ustinov put their nuclear forces onto a maximum state of military alert. Nuclear submarines deployed to their launch positions and waited. Missile silos containing mighty SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with multiple nuclear warheads, went on to standby. Mobile SS-20 missiles and their launchers were sent to secret hiding places in the countryside. Aircraft armed with nuclear weapons were put on “strip alert” on airbases in East Germany and Poland — waiting at the end of the runway with engines running, pilots awaiting the order to go.
The KGB, the Soviet secret intelligence service, sent out a “Flash” telegram to all their residences around the world warning that a western nuclear strike upon the Soviet Union was imminent. They were told to report immediately any signs that nuclear weapons were about to be launched. And at the clinic in Kuntsevo a senior military figure appeared with a mysterious suitcase. He entered Andropov’s room and locked the door behind him. He opened up the case and put it on the table. It was the cheget, a mobile communications system containing the so-called go codes to activate the entire Soviet arsenal of nuclear weapons, the Soviet equivalent of the briefcase or nuclear “football” that an officer always carries within a few steps of the US president. For the whole night he sat with the Soviet leader. The two men anxiously awaited news, their fingers hovering over the nuclear “button”.
How had this elderly, sick Soviet leader come to the point where he was about to order a full-scale nuclear attack upon the West? How had he convinced himself that the Soviet Union was itself about to come under nuclear attack? And how did the western powers not know of this panic among the Soviet leadership? Robert Gates, then deputy head of the CIA in Washington (more recently the US defence secretary under presidents Bush and Obama), later said, “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.”
Mutually assured destruction
Nineteen eighty-three was a supremely dangerous year. Ronald Reagan had been US president for two years. Since the beginning of his presidency he had begun to rearm on a vast scale. Defence spending increased by nearly 50 per cent during his first term, rising to nearly 7 per cent of GDP. The Pentagon got almost everything it wanted, including the B-1 bomber, an enlarged navy and reinforcements of conventional weapons. In Europe, the US prepared to install a new generation of Cruise and Pershing II missiles. All these hawkish plans were funded by building up immense budget deficits and by cutting back on domestic welfare programmes. During the 1980s the US national debt soared from $1 trillion to $4 trillion.
Reagan saw the Soviet Union as the source of unrest across the world and perceived national liberation struggles in Latin America or in Africa as signs of intended Soviet expansion. He believed the Soviets were behind most acts of international terrorism. In March 1983 Reagan made a famous speech calling the Soviet leaders “the focus of evil in the modern world”. The phrase “evil empire” entered the US lexicon to describe the Soviet Union. But Reagan went one step further and talked of a new strategic defence initiative, of building a shield in space to destroy nuclear missiles before they could hit the United States. The initiative was soon dubbed Star Wars, after the recent movie series in which the forces of good fight against an “evil empire” using deadly rays in space.
The Soviet leadership was deeply worried by this new policy. Star Wars fundamentally shifted the balance of nuclear power. So far in the Cold War neither superpower had launched nuclear weapons against the other because of what was called mutual assured destruction (MAD). Both sides knew that if they launched a nuclear attack they would face complete annihilation by a retaliatory attack. But if one side could defend itself against incoming nuclear missiles, then it could risk attacking the other without fear.
Both Star Wars and the aggressive language used by Reagan deeply upset and offended the Kremlin leaders. They worried that, after the détente of the 1970s, this was the beginning of a new phase of the Cold War and that the US was ramping up its public pronouncements against the Soviets to prepare its public for a military offensive.
Andropov had been head of the KGB for 15 years before becoming general secretary. He had never travelled outside the Soviet bloc and had left Russia only once to visit Hungary, to put down the uprising in Budapest in 1956. The senior figures within the KGB held the view that enemies everywhere, both within the Soviet Union but especially in the West, wanted to bring down the Soviet state.
The paranoid world of secret intelligence was the world Andropov knew best. He told the KGB to put its officers around the world on to a special alert, known as Operation Ryan. KGB officers in the West were instructed to observe closely what was going on in banks, hospitals and military installations. Any unusual activity, such as the movement of money, or the sudden recall to duty of servicemen, was to be reported to Moscow. Some tasks the KGB agents were asked to do seemed sensible and appropriate, like keeping watch of military installations for signs of increased mobilisation. Others seemed absurd. Agents in London had to count the lights in the windows of the Ministry of Defence at night. If the number suddenly increased, it could mean that the planners were preparing for military action.
Asking an intelligence agency to look for particular signs meant the agents were almost duty-bound to come back with evidence to prove their existence. Doubters were unlikely to do well when it came to the next round of promotions. When a KGB agent in London reported to the Moscow Centre that the BBC had put out a call for more blood donors, he was congratulated for spotting clear signs that blood banks were being amassed to deal with potential casualties from a nuclear exchange. Before long Operation Ryan became self-fulfilling — paranoia was baked into its very structure.
Meanwhile the US defence establishment was inadvertently setting more alarm bells ringing in KGB headquarters by pursuing a policy of psychological operations — in military jargon, psy-ops. In April 1983 a huge US naval task sailed straight into the Sea of Okhotsk in the northern Pacific, between Sakhalin and the Kamchatka peninsula in the far east of the USSR. The Soviets had filled this sea with submarine bases from where, in the event of war, they would fire nuclear missiles at the US. The surrounding territory was packed with top secret airfields where fighters and Tupolev “Backfire” supersonic bombers were based.
Forty American ships, led by the mighty aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise, carried out a series of naval exercises in the face of the Soviets. US aircraft repeatedly flew right up to the border of Soviet airspace then veered away at the last second. Planes packed with electronic listening devices would monitor how the Soviet radar stations went onto alert, eavesdropping on the procedures for responding to approaching American aircraft.
As one senior American analyst put it, “These actions were calculated to induce paranoia. And they did.”
The Kremlin leadership grew increasingly anxious. Andropov himself ordered the Soviet Far East Air Defence Command to adopt a policy of shoot-to-kill. Any unidentified aircraft crossing into Soviet airspace was to be shot down.
This had disastrous consequences on the night of August 31, 1983, when for reasons that are still unclear, a Korean Air Lines plane, flight KAL 007 from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, drifted 350 miles off course. First, it crossed the path of an American RC-135 electronic spy plane. Soviet radar operators grew confused as to which aircraft was which. The one they thought was the American spy plane continued by crossing the Kamchatka peninsula, packed with Soviet airbases, then flew on across the Sea of Okhotsk until it approached the even more sensitive area of Sakhalin. This time a squadron of Soviet SU-15 fighters were scrambled. The lead aircraft, piloted by Major Gennady Ossipovich, caught up with the mystery plane. Unable to see its civil markings in the dark, Ossipovich was told to intercept the aircraft, following international regulations to bring it down to land. He tried to do this by flashing his lights but there was no response. He fired across the bows of the aircraft but again, no response.
The Soviet defence commanders panicked. They ordered Ossipovich to fire his two air-to-air AA-3 missiles. One hit the left wing, the other hit the rear of the aircraft. The civilian jumbo jet began a rapid, uncontrolled descent. Ossipovich reported to his base commander, “The target is destroyed.” It took nine minutes for the jumbo to fall 35,000 feet before it crashed into the sea. All 269 passengers and crew on board were killed.
In Washington there was outrage. The secretary of state, George Shultz, accused the incompetent Soviet defence system of knowingly shooting down a civilian airliner. Reagan concluded that the Kremlin had no regard for human life. He launched a new verbal offensive against the Soviet Union expressing “revulsion at this horrifying act of violence”. He called it a “terrorist act” and “a crime against humanity”.
These furious condemnations were met with silence and then evasions from the elderly leadership in Moscow, who had no idea how to respond to a western media frenzy. The reality was that the decrepit Soviet Far East defence system had blundered dreadfully, unable to distinguish between the American spy plane and a civilian airliner. But the delays and denials made the Soviets look appallingly guilty to the rest of the world.
To the KGB officers watching and reporting from western capitals, the situation seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. Then, a few weeks later, a further unrelated incident sparked even more concern. In late October 1983, KGB officers scouring for signs of US military mobilisations found what they were looking for — the cause, however, had nothing to do with East-West relations.
After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982 a multinational peacekeeping force, which included US Marines, had been sent into Beirut as a condition of an Israeli withdrawal. Just over a year later, on October 23, 1983, a truck packed with explosives was driven into the heart of the US Marines’ barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American soldiers. It was the first terrorist act of the newly formed Hezbollah organisation. As a result, all US bases around the world were put on alert and the US military went on a heightened state of readiness — all of which was noted by KGB agents and reported back to a frightened Moscow.
Exercise, exercise, exercise
It was in this tense atmosphere that Nato began an exercise called Able Archer — a signals and communication drill to rehearse the procedures for launching a nuclear attack on the eastern bloc. In Able Archer the war gamers played out a script in which the Warsaw Pact — the Soviet-led military alliance of east European nations — invaded western Europe using conventional arms and overpowered Nato forces. Nato commanders would decide they must resort to the use of nuclear weapons and requested permission from their political masters. The exercise ended with Nato deploying its nuclear facilities.
All of Able Archer 83’s communications were coded and were preceded by the signal “Exercise exercise exercise”. But for paranoid Soviet intelligence operatives this was just another sign of maskirovka — “deception” — by the West. The Soviets had always believed that if the West attacked it would be under the guise of a military exercise — partly because the Kremlin had its own plans to attack the West under such a pretence. Soviet monitoring stations listened in to the Nato communications signals at every stage of Able Archer with alarm. Exercise? They would say that, wouldn’t they?
What’s more, Nato had changed its top-secret codes for the formal request to launch nuclear weapons since the last time it had held Able Archer. This added to the belief among the anxious Soviets that this was no war game but the real thing.
Andropov and his close clique of regular military and intelligence visitors convinced themselves that the West was about to launch a nuclear attack on their country. Some comrades with a better understanding of the West did not believe this was likely. But it was only a small, hardline group who came out to be around Andropov in his clinic.
So it was that on the night of Wednesday, November 9, 1983 — the climax of the Nato Able Archer exercise — that a petrified Andropov sat up all night. He looked back on a year of frightening relations with the West. The US president had called his leadership “evil”. He had talked of protecting the US from Soviet weapons with a satellite shield. The shooting down of the Korean airliner had unleashed even greater verbal assaults on the Kremlin leadership. The KGB had told him all the boxes were being ticked that signalled a nuclear attack was being prepared. Under the guise of the Nato exercise it looked to the old, paranoid Soviet leader that a nuclear strike was imminent. He now had at his fingertips the capacity to strike back and to hit western Europe and the United States with literally thousands of nuclear warheads, each one of which was potentially 40 times more powerful than the bomb dropped at Hiroshima.
If the Soviets had launched their nuclear weapons, Armageddon would have ensued. Tens of millions would have been killed directly by the impact of the nuclear missiles across western Europe and the United States. The massive arsenal of US nuclear missiles would then have been launched in retaliation from huge silos in the Midwest and from submarines across the oceans of the world. US commanders had boasted of being able to blast the Soviet Union back into the Stone Age. For those who survived the first rain of missiles, hundreds of millions more around the world would have died as a consequence of the nuclear radiation that would have been carried by winds and rain across continents. And millions more would have died in the starvation and chaos that followed in what was called the “nuclear winter”.
In the West on November 9, 1983, life carried on totally as normal. Children went to school, adults to work. People did their shopping and prepared evening meals. Very few even in military circles knew about Able Archer 83. Michael Heseltine, UK secretary of defence at the time, spent the day worrying about demonstrators who were surrounding Greenham Common airbase in protest against the introduction of American Pershing II missiles. The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, held a meeting with the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, in which they discussed European Economic Community industrial policy and the Iran-Iraq war. Uptown Girl by Billy Joel reached No 1 in the UK charts.
In the KGB London office, Oleg Gordievsky, the most senior KGB officer in the residency, thought the “Flash” telegram telling him to look out for signs of the imminent launch of nuclear missiles was absurd and he found it impossible to take the request seriously.
Why did Andropov not press the nuclear button that night? Well, first, of course, the Soviet early warning system did not pick up any evidence of the launch of missiles in Europe or North America. Second, the East Germans had a spy who had penetrated the very heart of Nato.
Rainer Rupp had been a student in West Germany in the late 1960s and part of the protest movement against the Vietnam War and the West German state. After a demonstration in Mainz he was befriended by an elderly man who, over some years, gradually recruited him into the HVA — the foreign intelligence division of the East German secret police, the Stasi. For many years Rupp was a sleeper agent for East Germany in the West. He had an English girlfriend who worked for Nato and in 1977 he joined the Nato staff based in Brussels. He was excellent at his job and rapidly rose through the ranks.
By 1983 Rupp was head of the Current Intelligence Group in Nato headquarters and had access to the highest level security documents. The Nato MC 161 document, which listed the strengths and capabilities of the Warsaw Pact nations and matched them in detail to Allied assets and missile sites, was given the highest classification of “cosmic top secret”. But Rupp got hold of it, copied it and passed it on to East Berlin. No wonder the East Germans codenamed Rupp “Topaz”, the most glittering jewel in the constellation.
On November 9, at Moscow’s request, the East Germans urgently contacted Rupp to ask him what was going on. Late that afternoon he was able to get a coded message out that it was just a normal day at the office in Nato HQ. Able Archer was a war game being played out in a separate section, nothing more, nothing less. We don’t know exactly what was made of this information when it reached Moscow, but it’s quite possible that the spy who had penetrated the very nerve centre of Nato and had given away its most precious secrets could well have saved the world.
Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB chief in London, in reality also a double agent, used to meet a team from MI6 led by John Scarlett. In one of these weekly secret meetings he passed on how the Kremlin had been panicked by Able Archer 83 and how they had prepared to launch a nuclear attack. Scarlett could barely believe what he was hearing but dutifully passed the information on to Washington, where again it was met with disbelief. Was this some sort of Soviet disinformation intended to undermine US hardline policy towards the eastern bloc? When the news of the Kremlin alarm reached the White House, Reagan described it as “really scary”. He was terrified at the thought of a nuclear exchange and of how, with only minutes to spare, he would have to decide how to respond. He took the story seriously and made a fundamental change to his tactics.
In 1984 Reagan stood for his second term. He no longer had to ring the anti-communist bell; his position was well known. So he became far more moderate in his language towards the Soviet Union. And in a series of personal approaches he tried to reach out to the Soviet leaders. Andropov died in 1984, to be replaced by Konstantin Chernenko, an even more sickly leader. He died a year later and when the leadership finally passed to a new generation in Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan’s approach at last fell on fertile ground. The resulting meetings were epochal. At a summit in Geneva, Reagan and Gorbachev discovered they could get along together rather well. At another summit at Reykjavik they discussed the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. In Washington in 1987 they signed an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, dramatically cutting back their nuclear arsenals. The controversial Cruise and Pershing II missiles were withdrawn from western Europe. And the Soviets removed all their medium-range SS-20s. By the end of the decade the Cold War was over and in 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The reaction to the Soviet war scare in 1983 had gone a long way to change the course of history.
An old, sick man in his extreme paranoia could have brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. It could happen again. Most thought the prospect of a nuclear confrontation had gone away with the end of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. But a new Russian leader, himself an ex-KGB officer and, like Andropov, imbued with a sense of paranoia about the western desire to destroy his country, once again threatens the use of nuclear weapons. If the crisis of November 1983 — which formed the backdrop of the popular Channel 4 series Deutschland 83 in 2016 — tells us anything, it is that small and insignificant events can multiply and escalate into a globally challenging crisis. In 1983 a set of navigational errors by the crew of a civilian airliner nearly prompted a military confrontation between East and West. And a regular Nato exercise was so completely misinterpreted by the Kremlin that it nearly brought the world to the brink.