1983: The Year the Cold War Almost Went Nuclear – Part 1: Operation RYAN

1983: The Year the Cold War Almost Went Nuclear – Part 1: Operation RYAN

Never, perhaps, in the postwar decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence, more difficult and unfavorable, as in the first half of the 1980s.

–Mikhail GorbachevFebruary 1986



Towards the end of the Cold War, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, were certain that NATO and the United States would launch a nuclear attack against them.  Rather than implement countermeasures for such a strike they wanted to be prepared to launch a preemptive strike.  This was by far the most dangerous position to take because any misinterpretation would have started a nuclear war.  To prevent the disaster of wrongfully launching a preemptive nuclear strike, Brezhnev implemented Operation RYAN in 1981.

There were several factors that contributed to this concern.  Many of the higher-ranking military and political leaders were alive during World War II.  Stalin and Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact in 1939.  Hitler never took the pact seriously.  He had signed it as a part of his plans to annihilate the Soviet Union and their Jewish population.  Western leaders warned the Soviets of the Nazi military buildup and imminent invasion.  The Kremlin chose to ignore these warnings because of the pact.  On June 22, 1941, German forces invaded the Soviet Union.  Fast-forward to 1981 and these Soviet leaders didn’t want to be caught so completely off-guard again.

The Soviets continued to maintain the same stoic front to the world but internally, the top leadership around Brezhnev were becoming more and more concerned of a US first strike.  President Reagan took office on January 20, 1981 and RYAN was announced a few months later in May.  This should come as no surprise because Reagan scared the Soviets.  They saw him as the tough characters he portrayed in the movies rather than President of the United States.  Their concern was only reinforced when President Reagan started calling them out in public with remarks against communism.  This fanned the flames of fear that were quietly building in the Kremlin.

By 1983 Andropov would be General Secretary and him and Reagan took their war of words very public.   Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the evil empire and Andropov called Reagan a liar.  When Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) on March 23, 1981, Andropov was no longer able to keep his fears private.  In response to the SDI announcement, Andropov publicly accused the United States of trying to find new ways to launch a nuclear attack against them.  He went on to compare Reagan to Hitler and wanting to conquer the Soviet Union.

RYAN would eventually become the largest intelligence gathering operation of the Cold War for the Soviets.  RYAN’s sole purpose was to gather intelligence on specific activities of the United States and its allies.  These predetermined activities were what the Soviets believed would be indicators that the United States was preparing to launch a surprise nuclear attack against them.  The list each agent had to watch for would grow to nearly three hundred different items that were considered as indicators of a nuclear strike.  It wasn’t any one specific item they were looking for but a pattern of them that when put together would indicate the preparation of a strike.

            They had their agents watching the White House and other key locations in Washington DC and military bases stateside and overseas.  Their eyes were everywhere and growing.  Soldiers stationed in Germany in the eighties were constantly reminded not to discuss anything military related to civilians.  In Germany, anybody could have been gathering information for the Soviets.  They had eyes on all NATO bases reporting deployments, alerts, and every other activity on base.  It was a real concern that soldiers not let slip deployment times and locations.  The most insignificant of details could have been used under RYAN to piece together things the Soviets shouldn’t be privy to.

            Soldiers like to drink so they were constantly warned not to discuss anything duty related when off base.  They were also told to be particularly cautious of women they met in the bars.  When you served in Germany, they seemed to want you to think every woman in the bars were KGB spies.  Such was the seriousness of the situation in the eighties.  The difference was that we were being cautious by warning are troops of the need for secrecy.  Those across the Iron Curtain were certain of an assault and were looking for enough clues to justify firing first.