The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the US, as the two supported a series of proxy wars and constantly jockeyed for supremacy in the Space Race and the Arms Race. There were several tense moments between 1946 and 1991, where the possibility of a nuclear attack looked more than possible from both nations, but arguably nothing came closer than the period of unrest between 1981 and 1983. Soviet fears were originally born out of World War 2, when US President Harry Truman kept a secret from Joseph Stalin about the true force of his nuclear weapons that were later dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As a result, the Kremlin scrambled to arm itself with a nuclear arsenal capable of matching that of their new rivals.
By May 1981, these fears had reached an all-time high as senior KGB officers and Soviet leaders General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov bluntly announced that the US was preparing a secret nuclear attack on the USSR.
Andropov announced the KGB would begin Operation RYaN (Nuclear Missile Attack) – the largest, most comprehensive intelligence operation in Soviet history.
Consequently, mass paranoia set in among Soviet leaders regarding the US plans, as memories of Nazi Germany’s surprise invasion of the USSR still haunted them.
World War 3
Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov claimed the US was planning a nuclear war
I don’t see how they could believe that – but it’s something to think about
These fears were not helped by the actions and rhetoric of newly-elected US President Ronald Reagan.
He announced a new medium-range nuclear missile to be introduced into Europe – Pershing II – which could reach the Soviet Union from West Germany in six minutes.
He also sparked a period of psychological warfare, where US fighter jets would test the reactions of the USSR by briefly flying into their airspace.
Reagan’s former undersecretary William Schneider remarked in 1983: “It really got to them.
“They didn’t know what it all meant.
“A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert.
“Then at the last minute, the squadron would peel off and return home.”
On March 8, 1983, Reagan said during a press conference: “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault.
“To ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the Arms Race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
The brandishing of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” sparked fury in the Kremlin, who became obsessed Reagan was attempting to smear the communist ideology.
Ronald Reagan brought in the Reagan Doctine
The Pershing II could reach the Soviet Union in six minutes
Just two weeks later, Reagan announced one of the most ambitious and controversial components to this strategy, the Strategic Defence Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars.
While Reagan portrayed the initiative as a safety net against nuclear war, leaders in the Soviet Union viewed it as a definitive departure from the relative weapons parity of Detente and an escalation of the Arms Race into space.
At the start of September, the psychological warfare had dire consequences when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet interceptor when it entered Soviet airspace.
All 269 passengers and crew aboard were killed, including Congressman Larry McDonald, a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia and President of the anti-communist John Birch Society.
On September 26, 1983, the Soviet orbital missile early warning system (SPRN) reported a single intercontinental ballistic missile launch from the US, believed to be an act of retaliation.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who many have since hailed a hero for saving the world from complete destruction, was on duty that night.
While many in the bunker that night believed the launch to be a genuine retaliation from the US, one man kept a cool head.
Despite three warnings of an imminent attack, Petrov remembered his nuclear training, knowing the US would launch more than three rockets in the event of a real nuclear war.
The timing of NATO’s yearly Able Archer exercise could not have come at a worse time for the USSR.
In November, Able Archer 83, an exercise to simulate nuclear war, was carried out by NATO forces.
While it was simply a communications test, paranoid Soviet agents believed this was exactly how the US would mask a real attack.
The operation introduced several new elements not seen in previous years, including a new unique format of coded communication, radio silences, and the participation of heads of government.
It also simulated a move through all alert phases, from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1, which KGB agents wrongly assumed to be a real move into the highest nuclear threat.
The Soviet politburo believed their only chance of surviving a NATO strike was to preempt it, and so readied its nuclear arsenal.
The CIA reported activity in the Baltic Military District and in Czechoslovakia, and it determined that nuclear-capable aircraft in Poland and East Germany were placed “on high alert status with readying of nuclear strike forces”.
However, East German spy Rainer Rupp, also known under the code name Mosel and later Topaz, worked in the NATO headquarters in Brussels and claims he helped avert nuclear war.
In an interview for 2008 Channel 4 documentary “1983: The Brink of Apocalypse”, he said he had transmitted the message that NATO was not preparing to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the USSR during the exercise to his HVA controllers.
ieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov is labelled a hero
Oleg Gordievsky with US President Ronald Reagan
He did this by way of encoding the message on a device disguised as a calculator which then turned the message into a short electronic burst which could be transmitted to a set telephone number.
He viewed this as vital to preventing a Soviet pre-emptive strike against NATO forces.
Days later, on November 11, 1983, Soviet fears were completely ended upon learning the Able Archer exercise had finished thanks to double agent Oleg Gordievsky.
President Reagan would later comment: “I don’t see how they could believe that – but it’s something to think about.”
Despite this, many historians including Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, and Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, have since argued that Able Archer 83 was one of the times when the world has come closest to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.