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Able Archer 83: the NATO war game that almost led to nuclear conflict

Hosted by the star of Homeland, Billions and Band of Brothers, Damian Lewis: Spy Wars is a fascinating new series delving into the shadowy world of espionage.

The first episode tells the story of Oleg Gordievsky – a KGB agent who flipped for the West, and whose spilling of Soviet secrets proved invaluable in the 1980s and may even have helped avert World War Three.

But why was that period in the Cold War so dangerous? And just how close did we come to a full-scale nuclear exchange that would have wiped out civilisation?

Reagan vs Andropov

It’s common to think of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – when Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off over Soviet missiles being stockpiled in Cuba – as the moment the rival superpowers came closest to unleashing Armageddon.

But there are many who think the events of 1983 were even more terrifying. As Mikhail Gorbachev later said, ‘Never, perhaps, in the postwar decades was the situation in the world as explosive… as in the first half of the 1980s.’

It’s important to consider the context. In the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis, there had actually been an easing of tensions between East and West. US President Richard Nixon, despite his post-Watergate reputation as a dastardly bogeyman in the White House, was actually something of a peace-maker, more interested in cooperating with the Soviets rather than condemning them.

Nixon even seemed comfortable with the Soviets retaining their strong position on the world stage, saying: ‘I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other’.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was on the same page as Nixon, and together they ushered in an era of thaw in the Cold War, known as détente. But it wasn’t to last. Détente came to an abrupt end when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a Communist revolution there. Then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan became US president.

Reagan’s take was the opposite of Nixon’s. Where the latter had been a pragmatist willing to do business with the enemy, Reagan took a firm moral stance against Communism. ‘My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple,’ Reagan once said to a friend. ‘It is this: we win and they lose.’

A year later, Brezhnev died. He was replaced by Yuri Andropov, a former KGB chief known for crushing any dissent in the Eastern Bloc. He’d once dubbed the very concept of human rights as an ‘imperialist plot to undermine the foundation of the Soviet state’, and took a similarly belligerent stance towards the US. He’d also developed a nagging fear that the US was planning nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union.

This paranoia partly stemmed from Andropov’s previous experience as the Soviet ambassador to Hungary in the 1950s, when he’d seen a mass uprising against the Communist regime there. In the words of historian Christopher Andrew, Andropov developed a kind of ‘Hungarian complex’, and was on permanent hair-trigger alert for any possible threats to the Soviet Union. Andropov’s paranoia led him to instigate Operation RYaN, tasking KGB spies to find any evidence – no matter how flimsy – that the Reagan administration was preparing to nuke the Soviet Union.

KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky leaked the details of this vast espionage operation to his handlers in the West. He confirmed that many KGB agents regarded RYaN as a weird and paranoid enterprise, but felt duty-bound to provide whatever ‘evidence’ they could scrape together (this included reports on blood bank supplies in the West, and surveillance of priests).

With a vehement anti-Communist hawk in the White House, and a twitchy, fearful ex-KGB bigwig in the Kremlin, the stage was set for the most critical chapter in the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The events of 1983

In March 1983, President Reagan gave a now-famous speech describing the Soviet Union as ‘an evil empire’. Just weeks later, he announced the Strategic Defence Initiative – a proposed missile defence system which would use laser beams to shoot down Soviet missiles before they could get to US targets. Dubbed the ‘Star Wars programme’ in the media, it fuelled Andropov’s paranoid certainty that the West was gearing up for World War Three.

Then, in September of that year, came the tragedy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was shot out of the sky by the Soviets when they mistook it for a US spy plane. All 269 people on board were killed in what President Reagan declared a ‘massacre’ by the Soviet Union. Coming hot on the heels of the ‘evil empire’ speech and the SDI announcement, this horrendous incident elevated tensions between the superpowers to new and nerve-jangling heights.

And then, in November of that fateful year, came Able Archer. This was an exercise carried out by NATO to test the West’s capabilities in the event of a nuclear confrontation. It imagined a scenario where increased frictions in Europe would lead to a Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia and other nations, followed by Soviet use of chemical weapons, followed in turn by NATO’s use of nuclear weapons.

Able Archer 83 was on a larger and more realistic scale than previous war games, with ‘red flags’ that would have alarmed any KGB spies looking out for evidence as part of Operation RYaN. These included the use of new forms of encrypted communications, the taxiing of realistic dummy warheads outside military hangers, and the airlift of thousands of US soldiers to Europe, carried out in ominous radio silence.

Alarmed by the ‘evidence’, the Soviet Union went into a combat readiness.Nuclear weapons were transported from storage sites to delivery units by helicopter, attack planes were put on high alert, and nuclear submarines were deployed to geographical locations least likely to be detected by US radar and sonar systems. In other words, the Soviet Union mistook NATO’s harmless military exercise as the prelude to a war that would undoubtedly destroy civilisation as we know it, and readied itself accordingly.

Thankfully, the conclusion of the Able Archer exercise led to the Soviets standing down. But, thanks to insights from the defector Oleg Gordievsky and documents declassified after the Cold War, it’s clear how dangerously rattled the Kremlin was by the events of 1983. Indeed, historian Richard Rhodes has suggested it was even more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis, because in the latter case, ‘both sides were at least aware of the danger and working intensely to resolve the dispute’.

During Able Archer 83, there was no such communication between the superpowers. Instead, there was only mounting paranoia, misread signals and a game of geopolitical poker where the stakes included the future of humanity itself.