The man who saved the world | Damian Lewis: Spy Wars
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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.
This is the story of Oleg Gordievsky, one of the West’s most valuable Cold War agents who risked everything to avert a third World War. Appearing to be an ambitious diplomat stationed at the Soviet embassy in Denmark. Gordievsky was actually a Russian spy and a rising star of the KGB. After a few years in Copenhagen, he was recruited by the British and posted to London by the KGB. Whilst in London, President Reagan authorised the largest NATO war game in its history: Able Archer.
But first what events led up to this fateful showdown between the Soviets and the West?
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. [Read more...]