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Did East German Spies Prevent A Nuclear War?
by Vojtech Mastny
The documentation of the amazing extent of NATO's penetration by Warsaw Pact agents during the Cold War appears on the PHP website on the twentieth anniversary of the November 1983 "Able Archer" incident - the time sometimes believed to have been the closest the world ever came to a nuclear war. The name was that of a NATO exercise generating Soviet suspicions that it was a cover-up for an imminent nuclear strike by the West. The information on NATO's most closely guarded secrets that East German spies were able to procure for the benefit of their Soviet masters raises the tantalizing question of whether the information may have reassured its Moscow recipients, thus preventing the Soviet Union from starting a nuclear war by launching a pre-emptive strike. There is also the question, however, whether the spies' reporting may not have actually precipitated the brush with a disaster by leaving doubt in the Kremlin about the West's intentions.
The 1983 Soviet "war scare" was the culmination of Moscow's growing concern about Western quest for military superiority - a concern prompted by the decline in the late 1970s of East-West détente, believed by Soviet leaders to have changed the global balance of power irreversibly in their favor. Surprised by the reversal, the Kremlin attributed it to US effort to compensate for the West's political, economic, and other nonmilitary setbacks by building up military power that could be used to blackmail the Soviet Union - ironically the mirror image of the way in which conservative US analysts interpreted the motives behind the uninterrupted growth of Soviet military power regardless of détente. Although the Kremlin was particularly worried about the technological and organizational advances of NATO's conventional forces, to the extent that the advances threatened to undermine the numerical advantage the Warsaw Pact had always enjoyed, the prospective shift in the military balance in Europe also seemed to enhance the value of nuclear weapons not only as a deterrent but also as an instrument of political pressure and perhaps even fighting war.
As speculation about the feasibility of fighting and winning a nuclear war led to an increasingly rarefied public and behind-the-scenes discussion in both the United States and the Soviet Union - to the dismay of Europeans whose homelands were those facing obliteration in the event of such a war - at issue was finding out what each of the potential belligerents really wanted to do. American strategists, beholden to their mechanistic theory of deterrence, were customarily dismissive of the importance of intentions on the dreary assumption that what counted was capabilities regardless of intentions. Their Soviet counterparts, viewing the world through the prism of their Marxist-Leninist doctrine, were despite its flaws better equipped by its nature to appreciate the primary importance of intentions. It was the job of their spies to provide information about enemy intentions that could be used, among other input, in making strategic decisions.
As early as March 1979, East Germany's chief of military intelligence Gen. Gregori reported that NATO, having achieved "a qualitatively new level of development," was capable of increasing the number of its combat ready divisions and tactical aircraft so quickly that it could start offensive operations shortly after the opening of hostilities to make matters worse for Moscow, minister of defense Marshal Dmitrii Ustinov told an assembly of the highest Soviet military a few months later, NATO could now allegedly count of Chinese support, thus making the Western alliance more dangerous than ever. Later that year, NATO's annual "Autumn Forge" maneuvers - which showed increased coordination with France as well - were viewed by Warsaw Pact intelligence as bearing evidence of the enemy's capacity to attain almost compete readiness to fight by the time the war would start. In February 1980, East German agents reported that NATO was exercising for the first time on the assumption of as little as 48 hours warning time before the start of hostilities. 
On the basis of intelligence received, the Warsaw Pact perceived NATO's December 1979 "dual-track" decision - which raised the prospect of future deployment of its intermediate-range strategic missiles as an inducement to negotiate away the same kind of missiles already deployed by the Soviet Union to cover all of Western Europe - as being aimed at attaining Western military superiority on the Continent by 1985-86. Although the perception was wrong, Iurii Andropov, who as the chief of the KGB intelligence agency was by definition the Soviet Union's best informed person, became particularly alarmed at what he regarded as deliberate US striving for nuclear superiority. On the occasion of a Moscow celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the East German ministry for state security in February 1980, he "outlined a gloomy scenario in which a nuclear war was a real threat." Spymaster Markus Wolf, who was present, had "never seen him so somber and depressed." 
Andropov's meeting with general secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev in early 1981 resulted in the decision that "the acquisition of information on military strategy from the United States and [the countries of] the Western alliance [with the goal of obtaining] a well-founded advance warning of an imminent military attack by the adversary be given absolute priority before all other assignments." Accordingly, the KGB and with its foreign collaborators were assigned to conduct a worldwide operation, under the Russian acronym RYaN, to detect the probability of a nuclear missile attack. Although the results of the operation remained inconclusive, the war plan of the US 5th Army Corps in Germany from January 1981 - which the proficient East German spies were soon able to get hold of - was bound to be disconcerting to Soviet strategists because of its embodying the new concept of AirLand Battle that provided for responding to a Warsaw Pact attack by deep strikes into enemy territory. The plan anticipated that attacking Warsaw Pact forces could already be stopped in the border area without reinforcements, though with the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, and that retaliatory strikes behind enemy lines would be delivered at the same time. 
With the collapse of superpower détente, the advances in Western strategy and their implementation threatened to vitiate the offensive strategy that had been the staple of Soviet planning for war in Europe ever since the 1961 peak of the Berlin crisis. Soviet chief of staff Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov took the lead in trying to draw consequences from what he perceived as the West's new confidence in its ability to fight and win a war in Europe, with or without resort to nuclear weapons. His writings since 1979, arguing that the Soviet Union could win such a war by striking first, by using tactical nuclear weapons against Western Europe, contrasted with Brezhnev's persisting conviction, as late as 1981, that starting such a war would be insane and winning it impossible. In June 1982, the Soviet military conducted an unprecedented exercise simulating a "seven-hour nuclear war" that featured an all-out strike against the United States and Western Europe. Indicating that Ogarkov's views did not enjoy unqualified endorsement by the Soviet leadership, however, soon after the exercise Ustinov obliquely took issue with those "who would invent a 'sure method' of fighting a victorious nuclear war." 
At a meeting with Warsaw Pact chiefs of staff at Minsk in September 1982, Ogarkov fomented a war scare by claiming that that the United States had "in effect already declared war on us." He compared the existing situation with that which had preceded immediately the outbreak of World War II, insisting that "the material preparations for war, as shown also by the current maneuvers of the NATO states, are no game, but are dead serious." The marshal concluded somberly that "the danger of war has never been so great," adding pointedly that "the leading imperialist circles are unpredictable." In a telling reversal of what NATO used to be afraid of in the 1950s, the Warsaw Pact's supreme commander Marshal Viktor Kulikov subsequently told the participants in the alliance's "Soiuz-83" exercise that the enemy was capable of launching a surprise attack in all parts of Europe simultaneously. 
Once Andropov succeeded Brezhnev as the supreme Soviet leader at the end of 1982, he became the greatest Cassandra ever to rule in the Kremlin. In a keynote speech to the Warsaw Pact's Political Consultative Committee in January 1983, he posed the question of how to explain the sudden change in Western policy. He answered it by attributing the change not only to the attainment of military parity between the superpowers, the West's losses in the Third World, and the capitalist system's alleged internal crisis, but also to opportunities provided by the Soviet bloc's systemic weaknesses - indebtedness to Western creditors, inability to feed its own people without imports from abroad, growing technological backwardness. He suggested that the West's new armament programs made it difficult to differentiate between the intention to "blackmail" and the readiness to take "a fatal step." Contrary to the belief of Americans alarmed at Soviet military buildup, Andropov expressed his conviction that the arms race was a growing burden for the Soviet Union but no problem for the United States. Calling President Ronald Reagan a "political thug," he blamed squarely the United States for an increased danger of war. 
Andropov’s adviser Viacheslav I. Dashichev disagreed. A few days after the Warsaw Pact meeting, he completed a memorandum in which he used the Western concept of security dilemma to explain the danger of “reflective reaction” by both adversaries. He faulted the Soviet Union for allowing the West to see Soviet policies as expansionistic and the Soviet military build-up as unrelenting, and emphasized the importance of reassuring the adversary about one’s own intentions. It is unlikely that Andropov ever read the memorandum, which foreshadowed the “new thinking” about security that would later dawn under Gorbachev. Attesting to the monumental lack of trust between the superpowers, in February 1983 RYaN’s level of alert was increased and KGB officers abroad were assigned to keep “continual watch” for any indications of a surprise attack. 
On March 23, Reagan lived up to Ogarkov’s image of unpredictable capitalist leaders by announcing a radical change in US strategy in his “Star Wars” speech. Relying for survival on defense rather than on the threat of “mutually assured destruction,” the change actually made the strategy more congenial to the Soviet way of thinking than it had been before. The unexpected suddenness with which the change was proclaimed, however, was bound to enervate Moscow. Andropov publicly railed against Washington’s supposed intent to devise plans that would allow it to unleash a nuclear war in the optimal way to ensure victory. Secretly he confided in Warsaw Pact leaders his view that the United States was moving from statements to practical measures in order to gain military superiority. He was closer to the truth, however, in suspecting that the administration wanted to “radically change the international situation to its advantage in order to dictate us how to live and how to handle our own affairs.” 
The catalyst that precipitated a war scare in Soviet Union in 1983 was the September 1 destruction of the KAL 007 South Korean airliner with all its passengers by a missile fired by a Soviet fighter plane after malfunctioning in the chain of command that proved the command system’s unreliability in an emergency. In an attempt to shift the blame on the exploitation of the incident by the Reagan administration, the war scare was instigated and orchestrated by the Soviet propaganda machine. In another few weeks later, however, the precariousness of the warning systems was demonstrated again, albeit out of public sight, when images of what appeared to be five incoming Minuteman missiles on the Soviet monitoring screens briefly created a panic. After five tense minutes, it was the colonel in charge who averted potentially catastrophic countermeasures by figuring out that more missiles would have had to be launched if the attack had been real, and acted accordingly. 
Former Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatolii F. Dobrynin, testifies that the Soviet politburo had by then become convinced than coming to terms with the United States was impossible, leading Andropov to declare publicly that a military conflict might come. Andropov blamed what he called an “outrageous military psychosis that had taken hold of the United States” and “completely dispelled” any illusions about the policy of the Reagan administration changing for the better. Amid all this real and artificial scare-mongering, it was NATO’s command post exercise “Able Archer,” started on 8 November 1983 with the goal of testing procedures for the release of nuclear weapons in case of an all-out war, was what gave the scare a taste of reality. 
East German agents installed in the NATO headquarters evidently did not get hold of inside information about this singularly ill-timed exercise. If they had succeeded in getting it, evidence of such a feat would have certainly been preserved for posterity by the Stasi destroyers of documents seeking to build an image of their agency as both competent and dedicated to the cause of peace. It was rather the KGB that acted on reports on the exercise, presumably coming from their own sources, such as Soviet signal intelligence monitoring the enemy’s activities. Soviet forces in East Germany and the Baltic area were put on alert as a result. The disturbing part of the war game was its encoded electronic signature that made it impossible to distinguish feigned firing of nuclear missiles from the real thing. The KGB felt compelled to pass on its station chiefs around the world the urgent though incorrect information that US forces had been put on special alert. 
What the KGB did not do was to pass its findings about the “Able Archer” to the Soviet politburo or even the upper levels of the defense ministry. Evidently the KGB processors of intelligence did not regard the information important and urgent enough; indeed, what NATO was doing was not any more alarming than the Soviet Union’s own June 1982 “seven-hour nuclear war” exercise that had simulating an all-out attack on the West in June 1982. If anybody could claim credit for preventing in November 1983 a tragedy that could have ensued from the “Able Archer” being discussed in the Moscow politburo, it is those unknown Soviet intelligence analysts who, whether out of common sense or because of incompetence, failed to provide policymakers with the potentially explosive information. Their achievement, however, was more apparent than real. Since the putative US missiles, once launched, would have taken only a few minutes to reach their targets the politburo members would have most likely been dead before being able to do anything. Such was the absurdity of the strategic relationship on which the security of the superpowers was supposed to be resting. 
What inadvertently helped to keep the relationship stable was not what East German spies had been able to find out about NATO but rather the information they were unable to find because it did not exist. NATO’s defensive doctrine and strategy was an open book for them, but for evidence of an imminent enemy attack they would look in vain. Heinz Busch, who was responsible for analyzing and processing their reports at the Stasi headquarters, pertinently testifies in his unpublished memoirs that “at no time were the highest organs of the Warsaw Pact provided with unequivocal evidence that would have explicitly proved that [NATO’s] military doctrine and strategy had changed.” 
The war scare cultivated by Soviet propaganda, as well as the RYaN operation, remained unaffected by the “Able Archer.” The scare continued to be cultivated because of its putative utility in Moscow’s campaign against the deployment of NATO’s “Euromissiles,” which was about to reach its peak at that time with the approaching crucial vote on the subject in the German Bundestag. Once West Germany’s parliament, on November 23, had approved the deployment on November 23 and the installation of the missiles started, however, the campaign became not only pointless but also counterproductive by generating panic among Soviet populace. It was soon called off, but RYaN continued until as late 1990. 
The Reagan administration, ever mistrustful of what the leaders of the “evil empire” might be up to, had become more scared than they after having realized how they could have reacted to the “Able Archer.” Shuddering at the thought of what could have been the consequences of a catastrophic misunderstanding, the president not only turned down his anti-Soviet rhetoric but also sent a reassuring message to Andropov. By then, the even more mistrustful Andropov lay dying, about to make room for successors who would eventually reassess the costs and benefits of Soviet security policy. In fostering the reassessment, the effects of Moscow’s miscalculation about the Euromissiles, which were for everyone to see, proved to be more consequential than the potential miscalculation that, hidden from the public eye, could have followed, but did not, from the “Able Archer” incident. Hence also the value of the NATO’s secrets snatched by East German spies must be rated proportionately lower.
Other things being equal, unwitting transparency in relations between adversaries can sometimes be more stabilizing than ignorance conducive to suspicions or illusions; the managed ignorance that produced the intelligence fiasco of the 2003 Iraq war is a telling case in point. Since things are never equal, however, governments are unlikely ever to stop trying to hide their secrets from their enemies nor are enemies ever likely to stop trying to snatch the secrets. Historians are the beneficiaries. The East German documents published on this website provide the most extensive glimpse thus far of Western military planning, its rationale and implications, during a period of the Cold War on which the vast majority of original archival documents are still classified. Most importantly, the documents show how much advances in the West’s conventional military power, rather than the sterile accumulation of nuclear weaponry, helped to eventually impress upon the enemy that it cannot win the war.
VOJTECH MASTNY, the PHP coordinator, is Senior Research Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Senior Fellow at the National Security Archive, both in Washington, D.C. He has been Professor of History and International Relations at Columbia University, University of Illinois, Boston University, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, as well as Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and the first Manfred Wörner Fellow of NATO. His most recent book, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity, is the winner of the American Historical Association's 1997 George L. Beer Prize.
 Report of 9 March 1979, VA-01/39517, pp. 53-73, German Federal Archives, Military Branch [later cited as BA-MA]. See also report of January 1979, AZN 30525, pp. 8-24, at p. 18, BA-MA, and Otto Wenzel, Kriegsbereit: Der Nationale Verteidigungsrat der DDR, 1960 bis 1989 (Cologne: Wissenschaft und Politik, 1995), p. 203. Information on Ustinov's speech by Gen. Shadrov, VA-01/40406, pp. 294-303, BA-MA. Report by Gregori about "Autumn Forge" for National Defense Council, 23 November 1979 , DVW1/39520, BA-MA. "Information über Vorbereitung der strategischen NATO-Kommandostabsübung WINTEX 81," 22 February 1980, HVA, 23, pp. 63-70, Stasi archives, intelligence division (lated cited BStU).
 "Auskunft über den Stand der Erfüllung des NATO-Langzeitprogramms (LTDP)," 7 April 1981, HVA, 6, pp. 252-78, BStU. Markus Wolf, Spionagechef im geheimen Krieg: Erinnerungen (Munich: Econ, 1998), p. 326.
 Heinz Busch, Die Militärspionage der DDR, unpublished manuscript, 2001, p. 130. "General Defense Plan (GDP) of US 5th Army Corps," 1 January 1981, in "Information über militärische Planungen der USA ... ," 16 December 1982, HVA, 19, BStU).
 Ben B. Fischer, "Intelligence and Disaster Avoidance: The Soviet War Scare and US-Soviet Relations," in Mysteries of the Cold War, ed. Stephen J. Cimbala (Burlington: Ashgate, 1999), pp. 89-104, at p. 96.
 Hoffmann to Honecker and note on statements by Ogarkov, 14 September 1982, AZN 32643, pp. 117-26, BA-MA. Statement by Kulikov, 9 June 1983, VS, OS, 1987, čj. 75174/4, Central Military Archives, Prague (VÚA).
 Speech by Andropov, 4 January 1983, VA-01/40473, pp. 60-85, BA-MA.
 Wjatscheslaw I. Daschitschew, " 'Nicht durchhaltbare Mission der sowjetischen Aussenpolitik' - ein Gutachten für Andropow," in Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung 1997 (Berlin: Akademie, 1997), pp. 216-32. Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Instructions from the Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Operations 1975-1985 (London: Stoddard & Houghton, 1991), pp. 74-75.
 Speech by Andropov at Moscow meeting of party chiefs, 28 June 1983, DC/20/I/3/1950, pp. 67-77, at p. 68, Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv (SAPMO), Berlin.
 Elizabeth Teague, "War Scare in the USSR," in Soviet/East European Survey, 1983-1984: Selected Research and Analysis from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, ed. Vojtech Mastny (Durham: Duke University Press, 1985), pp. 71-76.Stephen J. Cimbala, "Nuclear Weapons and Soviet Military Strategy in the Cold War," in his Russia and Armed Persuasion (Lanham: Rowland & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 39-56, at pp. 63-64.
 Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 540.
 Ben B. Fischer, A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 1997), pp. 24-26.
 Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994), p. 139.
 Busch, Die Militärspionage der DDR, p. 130.
 Benjamin B. Fischer, "The 1980s Soviet War Scare: New Evidence from East German documents," Intelligence and National Security 14, no. 3 (1999): 186-97.
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Last edited by King Helü of Wu; May 11th, 2013 at 09:39 AM..