Did spying help to smooth tensions during the Cold War?

Did spying help to smooth tensions during the Cold War? by Tony Garcia

Answer by Tony Garcia:

You are definitely on the right track. Spying helps one country assess the intentions of its allies as well as its enemies. It prevents overreaction. I’ll give you an example from the height of the Cold War.

On Septemebr 26, 1983, Soviet early-warning radar had detected first three, then four, then five nuclear missiles launched by the United States and aimed at the Soviet Union. But other radar screens showed nothing in the air. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant-colonel in the military intelligence section of the Soviet Union, the GRU, reasoned that a basic tenet of Cold War strategy was, if one side ever did make a preemptive strike, it would do so with a mass launch—an overwhelming force—not this dribble.

Petrov stuck to his common-sense reasoning. This had to be a mistake.

For the next ten minutes, Petrov sweated, counting down the missile time to Moscow. But there was no bright flash, no explosion 150 times greater than Hiroshima. Instead, the sirens stopped blaring and the warning lights went off.

Later, in early November of that same year, the Soviet leadership feared a surprise nuclear first-strike attack by the U.S., based on a nuclear weapons Command Post exercise by NATO forces termed “Able Archer.”

According to a recently-declassified review, “The Soviet War Scare” by The President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1990), the Soviet Union believed the NATO maneuvers were a cover for an attack by the United States. This triggered a series of unparalleled Soviet military re­sponses to prepare for a sudden nuclear attack:

  • A large-scale naval exercise in the Norwegian, Baltic, North and Barents Seas to gather intelligence on NATO maneuvers;
  • Preparations for air exercises against Afghanistan;
  • Putting air forces in East Germany and Poland on high alert, including the transfer to them of nuclear weapons;
  • Tasking Soviet KGB and GRU officers around the world to be on the lookout for signs of nuclear war preparations;
  • A suspension of all military flights during this period in order to have as many military aircraft available as possible for a counterattack;
  • Attempts to change the air corridor regime in Berlin;
  • Heightened propaganda against the United States, aimed specifically at belligerent U.S. military behavior.

Despite conflict within CIA over the Soviets’ intentions, CIA Director William Casey sent a memo to President Ronald Reagan detailing that the Soviets were becoming increasingly aggressive in their preparedness for a first strike. According to then-National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, Reagan described the Soviet response to Able Archer as “really scary.”

All this at a time when Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was deathly ill and Reagan had declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

What saved the situation were two spies, one on each side. Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer based in London, was really a double agent working for British Intelligence. He warned MI5 and the CIA that Able Archer had put Soviet leaders in a dangerous frame of mind.

Initially, CIA’s analysts were not convinced, but MI5’s insistence on Gordievsky’s veracity ultimately persuaded U.S. intelligence of the seriousness of the situation. In response, Reagan then made a highly visible journey out of the country as a signal to the Soviets that he was otherwise engaged.

Meanwhile, an East German spy code-named Topaz—real name Rainer Rupp—had infiltrated the NATO hierarchy and was privy to many of its secrets. He was asked by Moscow to confirm that the West was about to go to war. His message back to the Kremlin was that NATO was not planning to go to war.

In post mortem, CIA analysts were described as too sanguine and overconfident in their assessment of the Soviet Union’s response. They had not take into serious consideration the intelligence provided by Godievsky, even though he had warned the British of the existence of a KGB intelligence-collection effort to detect indications that the West was preparing for nuclear war, and that a KGB computer model to measure perceived changes­ in the “correlation of ­forces” between the super­powers had alerted Soviet leaders that a “deterioration of Soviet power might tempt a US first strike.”

Did spying help to smooth tensions during the Cold War?

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