La “1983 Soviet War Scare” vue par la CIA

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La “1983 Soviet War Scare” vue par la CIA

Nous avons retrouvé un très intéressant rapport de la CIA, écrit par l’analyste Ben B. Fischer, déclassifié en 1997, sur la période de la Guerre froide qui va de 1980 à 1985, et qui reste une des périodes les plus ambiguës de la guerre froide quant à la signification qu’il faut lui donner. Il s’agit de la question dite de la Soviet War Scare, c’est-à-dire de la conviction qu’eut le Kremlin pendant la période, et notamment en 1983, que l’URSS allait subir une attaque nucléaire stratégique surprise de la part des USA/de l’OTAN. Le site de la Federation of American Scientist (FAS), présenta notamment ce document de la CIA dans un commentaire, en 1998 [non accessible]. On peut lire :

« Fischer’s monograph publicly reverses the official CIA position that Moscow’s “concerns” were just so much disinformation. This is an extraordinary admission, at a time when the CIA is still trying to explain why it failed to recognize the imminent demise of its Soviet foe. Now they acknowledge that they did not realize the Soviet Union was bracing itself for all-out nuclear war through most of 1983-84. One can hardly imagine two more glaring “oversights.” What other institution could survive such a profound mission failure? »

Nous reviendrons probablement à plus d’une occasion sur cette question historique d’une période essentielle, puisque c’est entre 1979 et 1985 que la Guerre froide bascula. (En 1985, Gorbatchev désigné comme secrétaire général du PC de l’URSS, l’effondrement du monde soviétique est en route.)

Nous pensons notamment que c’est dans cette période que le concept de guerre préventive, un temps (dans les années 1949-58) très à l’honneur dans la pensée stratégique US, est revenu dans les esprits de certains stratèges, jusqu'à sa complète adoption comme stratégie officielle des USA depuis 2002. Au reste, cette période historique se place à un moment où certains des principaux acteurs de l’actuelle génération (Perle, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc) commencent à intervenir dans la vie publique américaine. Ces divers éléments mériteraient d’être liés entre eux pour donner peut-être un éclairage différent à la période depuis 1975-76 jusqu’à aujourd’hui.

En attendant, il est excellent de pouvoir lire une approche nouvelle de l’attitude soviétique pendant la période 1979-85, avec cette grande “Soviet War Scare”.

Nota Bene: pour des raisons techniques, nous avons dû diviser ce texte en deux accès. Le second accès, arbitrairement placé à la date du 20 septembre dans cette rubrique, comprend la conclusion du rapport, deux appendices et les notes. (Pour ce second accès, suite et fin du rapport, cliquez ici.) Nous vous prions de nous excuser de cet inconvénient.




The 1983 Soviet War Scare

Soviet intelligence services went on alert in 1981 to watch for US preparations for launching a surprise nuclear attack against the USSR and its allies. This alert was accompanied by a new Soviet intelligence collection program, known by the acronym RYAN, to monitor indications and provide early warning of US intentions. Two years later a major war scare erupted in the USSR. This study traces the origins and scope of Operation RYAN and its relationship to the war scare.

Some observers dismissed the alert and the war scare as Soviet disinformation and scare tactics, while others viewed them as reflecting genuine fears. The latter view seems to have been closer to the truth. The KGB in the early 1980s saw the international situation--in Soviet terminology, the ''correlation of world forces''--as turning against the USSR and increasing its vulnerability. These developments, along with the new US administration's tough stance toward the USSR, prompted Soviet officials and much of the populace to voice concern over the prospect of a US nuclear attack.

New information suggests that Moscow also was reacting to US-led naval and air operations, including psychological warfare missions conducted close to the Soviet Union. These operations employed sophisticated concealment and deception measures to thwart Soviet early warning systems and to offset the Soviets' ability — greatly bolstered by US spy John Walker — to read US naval communications.

In addition, this study shows how:

• The war scare affected Soviet responses to the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the administration's condemnation of the Soviet Union following the 1983 shootdown of a South Korean airliner, and a NATO nuclear-release exercise late that same year.

• British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought to use the Soviet alert/war scare to influence President Reagan's thinking about the USSR.

• Moscow's threat perceptions and Operation RYAN were influenced by memories of Hitler's 1941 surprise attack on the USSR (Operation BARBAROSSA).

• The Kremlin exploited the war scare for domestic political purposes, aggravating fears among the Soviet people.

• The KGB abandoned caution and eschewed proper tradecraft in collecting indications-and-warning intelligence and relied heavily on East German foreign and military intelligence to meet RYAN requirements.

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 Gorbachev, February 1986


US-Soviet relations had come full circle by 1983 — from confrontation in the early postwar decades, to detente in the late 1960s and 1970s, and back to confrontation in the early 1980s. Europeans were declaring the outbreak of ''Cold War II.'' French President Francois Mitterrand compared the situation that year to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1948 face-off over Berlin. On this side of the Atlantic, the doyen of Soviet-watchers, George Kennan, exclaimed that the new superpower imbroglio had the ''familiar characteristics, the unfailing characteristics, of a march toward war--that and nothing else.'' (1)

Such fears were exaggerated. Even at this time of heightened tension, nowhere in the world were the superpowers squared off in a crisis likely to escalate into full-scale nuclear war. But a modern-day Rip van Winkle waking up in 1983 would have noted little if any improvement in the international political climate; he would not have realized that a substantial period of detente had come and gone while he slept. (2)

The post-detente ''second Cold War'' was essentially a war of words — strong and at times inflammatory words. In March 1983, President Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the ''focus of evil in the world'' and as an ''evil empire.'' (3) Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov responded by calling the US President insane and a liar. (4) Then things got nasty. (5)

Following Andropov's lead — and presumably his orders — the Soviet propaganda machine let loose a barrage of harsh verbal assaults on the United States reminiscent of the early days of the Cold War. (6) Moscow repeatedly accused President Reagan of fanning the flames of war and compared him to Hitler — an image even more menacing than that of Andropov as the evil empire's Darth Vader. Such hyperbole was more a consequence than a cause of tension, but it masked real fears.

Context: Soviet Cold War Setbacks

The Hitler comparison was more than a rhetorical excess; war was very much on the minds of Soviet leaders. Moscow was in the midst of a war scare that had two distinct phases--a largely concealed one starting in 1981 and a more visible one two years later.

In early 1981 the KGB's foreign intelligence directorate, using a computer program developed several years earlier, prepared an estimate of world trends that concluded the USSR in effect was losing — and the US was winning — the Cold War.(7) Expressed in Soviet terms, the “correlation of world forces” between the US and the USSR was seen as turning inexorably against the latter. (8)

This assessment was profoundly different from that of 10 years earlier, when Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had asserted that: “Today there is no question of any significance that can be decided without the Soviet Union or in opposition to it.” (9) The Soviet ambassador to France, for example, had proclaimed that the USSR “would not permit another Chile,” implying that Moscow was prepared to counter the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America and the Carter Doctrine in the Persian Gulf with the Brezhnev Doctrine, which the Soviets invoked to justify the use of military power to keep pro-Soviet regimes in power and repel... “the threat of counterrevolution or foreign intervention.” (10) Such rhetoric reflected Marxist theoreticians' conviction in the 1970s that the correlation of forces was scientifically based and historically ordained and would endure.

But the Politburo faced a new set of realities in the early 1980s. The United States, late in the Carter administration and continuing in the first years of the Reagan administration, had started playing catch-up. To many observers it began to seem that Marxist gains in the 1970s in such places as Indochina, Angola, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua had owed more to US divisions, diversions, and defeats than to Soviet power and influence. (11) Now it appeared that Moscow had not really gained very much from its foreign adventures. For example:

• In Afghanistan, the Soviet Army was caught in its own version of America's Vietnam quagmire.

• Cuba, Moscow's foothold in the Western Hemisphere, was foundering economically and draining Soviet funds.

• The pro-Soviet regime in Angola was struggling to contain a potent, sometimes US-backed insurgency.

• Nicaragua's Marxist government faced a growing challenge from US-supported opposition forces.

• In an even more fundamental reversal for the Soviet Union, US public opinion, disillusioned with detente and arms control, was now supporting the largest peacetime defense buildup in the nation's history.

These trends for the most part began under President Carter and accelerated under President Reagan. The Carter administration, moreover, began revitalizing CIA covert action against the USSR. President Reagan, in addition to accelerating the US military buildup, expanded programs launched under his predecessor to support human rights activists in the USSR and Poland and the mujahedin in Afghanistan.12 In Western Europe, where the Kremlin had spent a decade trying to win friends and influence people — especially on the left — with its peace-and-detente policies, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany favored installing new US missiles to counter Soviet SS-20s aimed at his country and other NATO allies.

In sum, the wheel of history appeared to have stopped in its tracks in the 1980s and seemed to be turning in the opposite direction — in the West's favor. What a difference a decade makes!

The Soviet Intelligence Alert and Operation RYAN

The 1981 KGB assessment was more of a long-range forecast than a storm warning, but the Politburo issued what amounted to a full-scale hurricane alert. Andropov and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made a joint appearance in May 1981 before a closed session of KGB officers.13 Brezhnev took the podium first and briefed the assembled intelligence officers on his concerns about US policy under the new administration in Washington. Andropov then asserted bluntly that the United States was making preparations for a surprise nuclear attack on the USSR. The KGB and the GRU, he declared, would join forces to mount a new intelligence collection effort codenamed RYAN. (14) Its purpose: to monitor indications and provide early warning of US war preparations.

According to later revelations by ex-KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky, KGB rezidenturas (field stations) in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and selected Third World countries received the first set of RYAN requirements in November 1981. (GRU rezidenturas presumably received theirs simultaneously.) The KGB Center (headquarters in Moscow) transmitted additional guidance in January 1982, directing those rezidenturas that were on alert to place a high priority on RYAN in their annual work plans. In March 1982, the senior KGB officer in charge of coordinating requirements at the Center was assigned to Washington to oversee collection of indications-and-warning intelligence.

In discussing the heightened emphasis on RYAN, Yuri Shvets, a former KGB officer in the Washington rezidentura, observed in his 1994 book that information cabled to Moscow from the RYAN collection program was used in daily briefing books for the Politburo. He also noted that the program required an inordinate amount of time. (15)

Why an Intelligence Alert?

Several former KGB officers, among them Oleg Gordievsky, Oleg Kalugin, and Yuri Shvets, have confirmed the existence of the Soviet intelligence alert, but its origins are unclear. Gordievsky disclaims any firsthand knowledge of what prompted the Politburo to implement Operation RYAN. His own view is that it was both a reaction to “Reaganite rhetoric” and a reflection of “Soviet paranoia.” Andropov and Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, both of whom harbored more alarmist views on US intentions than other Politburo members, may have urged the alert on Brezhnev, although Gordievsky has not documented this. Former Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin mentions RYAN in his memoirs but adds little to Gordievsky's account. (17)

In short, something is missing in this picture. Exactly what precipitated the alert and Operation RYAN? The decision to order an intelligence alert was highly unusual. Moreover, in terms of its mission, scope, and consumption of operational resources — not to mention cooperation between Soviet civilian and military services — RYAN was unprecedented. (18) The threat perception on which it was based was new as well; as Dobrynin notes in his memoirs, Andropov was the first Soviet top leader since Stalin who seemed to believe that the United States might launch a surprise attack on the USSR. (19)

RYAN must be viewed in its temporal context. It began just a few months into the Reagan administration — that is, well before the new US administration's policies had been fully formulated, much less implemented — and almost two years before the Soviet war scare erupted publicly in late 1983. As of early 1981, the Politburo was cautiously optimistic that President Reagan's rhetoric was more a campaign plank than a policy framework. The Soviet leadership was hoping that, as in the past, a more “realistic” attitude would take hold in Washington once diplomacy got down to business.20 Nonetheless, in international relations as in other spheres of human activity, actions generally speak louder than words, and the well-known proverb about sticks and stones applies as much to diplomacy as to the playground. Clearly, the Politburo was responding to something more than verbal taunts. Was it reacting to taunts of another kind?

Spooking the Soviets

PSYOPS. RYAN may have been a response to the first in a series of US psychological warfare operations (PSYOPs in military jargon) initiated in the early months of the Reagan administration. (21) These operations consisted mainly of air and naval probes near Soviet borders. The activity was virtually invisible except to a small circle of White House and Pentagon officials — and, of course, to the Kremlin. “’It was very sensitive,’ recalls former undersecretary of defense Fred Ikle. ‘Nothing was written down about it, so there would be no paper trail.’” (22)

The purpose of this program was not so much to signal US intentions to the Soviets as to keep them guessing what might come next. The program also probed for gaps and vulnerabilities in the USSR's early warning intelligence system:

“Sometimes we would send bombers over the North Pole and their radars would click on,” recalls Gen. Jack Chain, [a] former Strategic Air Command commander. “Other times fighter-bombers would probe their Asian or European periphery.” During peak times, the operation would include several maneuvers in a week. They would come at irregular intervals to make the effect all the more unsettling. Then, as quickly as the unannounced flights began, they would stop, only to begin again a few weeks later. (23)

Another former US official with access to the PSYOP program offered this assessment:

“It really got to them,” recalls Dr. William Schneider, [former] undersecretary of state for military assistance and technology, who saw classified “after-action reports” that indicated U.S. flight activity. “They didn't know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home.” (24)

Naval Muscle-Flexing

According to published accounts, the US Navy played a key role in the PSYOP program after President Reagan authorized it in March 1981 to operate and exercise near maritime approaches to the USSR, in places where US warships had never gone before. (25) Fleet exercises conducted in 1981 and 1983 near the far northern and far eastern regions of the Soviet Union demonstrated US ability to deploy aircraft-carrier battle groups close to sensitive military and industrial sites, apparently without being detected or challenged early on. (26) These exercises reportedly included secret operations that simulated surprise naval air attacks on Soviet targets.

In the August-September 1981 exercise, an armada of 83 US, British, Canadian, and Norwegian ships led by the carrier Eisenhower managed to transit the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap undetected, using a variety of carefully crafted and previously rehearsed concealment and deception measures. (27) A combination of passive measures (maintaining radio silence and operating under emissions control conditions) and active measures (radar-jamming and transmission of false radar signals) turned the allied force into something resembling a stealth fleet, which even managed to elude a Soviet low-orbit, active-radar satellite launched to locate it. (28) As the warships came within operating areas of Soviet long-range reconnaissance planes, the Soviets were initially able to identify but not track them. Meanwhile, Navy fighters conducted an unprecedented simulated attack on the Soviet planes as they refueled in-flight, flying at low levels to avoid detection by Soviet shore-based radar sites. (29)

In the second phase of this exercise, a cruiser and three other ships left the carrier battle group and sailed north through the Norwegian Sea and then east around Norway's Cape North and into the Barents Sea. They then sailed near the militarily important Kola Peninsula and remained there for nine days before rejoining the main group.

In April-May 1983, the US Pacific Fleet held its largest exercises to date in the northwest Pacific.30 Forty ships, including three aircraft carrier battle groups, participated along with AWACS-equipped B-52s. At one point the fleet sailed within 720 kilometers (450 miles) of the Kamchatka Peninsula and Petropavlovsk, the only Soviet naval base with direct access to open seas. US attack submarines and antisubmarine aircraft conducted operations in protected areas (“bastions”) where the Soviet Navy had stationed a large number of its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). US Navy aircraft from the carriers Midway and Enterprise carried out a simulated bombing run over a military installation on the small Soviet-occupied island of Zelenny in the Kuril Island chain. (31)

In addition to these exercises, according to published accounts, the Navy applied a full-court press against the Soviets in various forward areas. Warships began operating in the Baltic and Black Seas and routinely sailed past Cape North and into the Barents Sea. Intelligence ships were positioned off the Crimean coast. Aircraft carriers with submarine escorts were anchored in Norwegian fjords. US attack submarines practiced assaults on Soviet SSBNs stationed beneath the polar ice cap.

These US demonstrations of military might were aimed at deterring the Soviets from provocative actions and at displaying US determination to respond in kind to Soviet regional and global exercises that had become larger, more sophisticated, and more menacing in preceding years. The projection of naval and naval air power exposed gaping holes in Soviet ocean surveillance and early warning systems. For example, in a Congressional briefing on the 1983 Pacific exercise, the chief of naval operations noted that the Soviets “are as naked as a jaybird there [on the Kamchatka Peninsula], and they know it.” (32) His comment applied equally to the far northern maritime area and the Kola Peninsula. In short, the Navy had demonstrated that it could:

• Elude the USSR's large and complex ocean surveillance systems. (33)

• Defeat Soviet tactical warning systems.

• Penetrate air defense systems.

RYAN and PSYOP — A Link?

Was there a connection between PSYOP and RYAN? There clearly was a temporal correlation. The first PSYOP probes began in mid-February 1981; in May, Andropov directed the KGB to work with the GRU to launch the RYAN program (see earlier section entitled ''The Soviet Intelligence Alert and Operation RYAN''), and the KGB Center informed rezidenturas about the program's existence.

When Reagan administration officials first learned of RYAN, they reportedly drew a connection between the US-led military probes and the Soviet alert, noting that the Soviets were increasingly frightened.34 While Moscow presumably took account of the tit-for-tat nature of the US military operations and did not draw hard-and-fast conclusions as to what these operations might portend about US intentions, it could not ignore either their implications for a surprise attack scenario or the gaps they exposed in the USSR's technical early warning systems.

In addition, the ability of Soviet intelligence to monitor US naval operations by reading encrypted communications had been reduced, if not neutralized. Moscow did not know what the US would do. Even so, it had learned a disturbing lesson about what Washington could do in a wartime situation or other crisis. RYAN, it appears, was designed to test a worst case interpretation of US actions and to compensate for technical deficiencies in Soviet strategic and tactical warning capabilities by augmenting them with human intelligence operations.

While a narrow circle of US officials may have gained an appreciation of the PSYOP-RYAN cause-and-effect relationship suggested above, this apparently was not true of the US Intelligence Community as a whole. A declassified 1984 Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE), commissioned to assess indications of an “abnormal Soviet fear of conflict with the United States,” was a case in point. (35)

The SNIE did not refer specifically to RYAN, although allusions to war-scare statements suggest some knowledge of the alert. In the absence of other information, the SNIE attributed Soviet statements to US foreign and defense policy “challenges”; it attributed recent Soviet military exercises to force development and training requirements. The SNIE played down the significance of Soviet assertions about US preparations for a surprise nuclear attack, arguing that the “absence of forcewide combat readiness and other war preparations in the USSR” apparently meant that the Kremlin did not believe war was imminent or inevitable. (36) The ''war scare'' was more propaganda than threat perception, according to this assessment. (37)

Nonetheless, the SNIE drafters evidently sensed that there might be more to the story and raised the possibility that ''recent US/NATO military exercises and reconnaissance operations'' might have been factors in Soviet behavior. The main clue was the difference between past and present Soviet characterizations of such exercises and operations. In the past, Moscow had routinely criticized such activities as indications of Western hostile intentions, but now it was going considerably further by charging that they were preparations for a surprise nuclear attack. In the final analysis, however, the SNIE's authors were unable to make a specific connection between the Soviet alert and Western military moves, noting that a “detailed examination of simultaneous ‘red’ and ‘blue’ actions had not been accomplished.” (38)

While the US probes caught the Kremlin by surprise, they were not unprecedented; there was a Cold War antecedent. During the 1950s and 1960s, the US Strategic Air Command and the Navy had conducted similar operations -- intelligence-gathering missions, including “ferret” operations aimed at detecting locations of, reactions by, and gaps in Soviet radar and air defense installations--along the USSR's Eurasian periphery in preparation for possible nuclear war. (39)

RYAN, Phase II: A New Sense of Urgency

Operation RYAN was assigned a high but not overriding priority in 1982. Then, on 17 February 1983, the Center notified all rezidenturas on alert that RYAN had “acquired an especial degree of urgency” and was “now of particularly grave importance.” (40) Rezidents (station chiefs) received new orders marked “strictly personal,” instructing them to organize a ''continual watch'' using their entire operational staff. (41) They also were ordered to redirect existing agents who might have had access to RYAN-related information; to recruit new agents; and to have operations officers put selected targets under surveillance.

The new orders assumed that a preliminary US decision to launch a nuclear missile attack, even if made in secret, would require a variety of consultations and implementing actions that could be detected through a combination of overt and clandestine scrutiny. According to the KGB Center:

One of the chief directions for the activity of the KGB's foreign service is to organize detection and assessment of signs of preparation for RYAN in all possible areas, i.e., political, economic and military sectors, civil defense and the activity of the special services.

Our military neighbors [the GRU] are actively engaged in similar work in relation to the activity of the adversary's armed forces. (42)

Three categories of targets were identified for priority collection. The first included US and NATO government, military, intelligence, and civil-defense installations that could be penetrated by agents or visually observed by Soviet intelligence officers. Service and technical personnel at such installations were assigned a high priority for recruitment. The second target category consisted of bilateral and multilateral consultations among the US and other NATO members. The third included US and NATO civilian and military “communications networks and systems.”

Rezidenturas were instructed to focus on changes in the operations of US/NATO communications networks and in staffing levels. They also were ordered to obtain information on ''the organization, location, and functioning mechanism of all forms of communications which are allocated by the adversary for controlling the process of preparing and waging a nuclear war''--that is, information on command-and-control networks. (43)

Moscow's new sense of urgency was explicitly linked to the impending deployment of US Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in West Germany. The Soviets as well as some Western military experts saw the Pershings as a new destabilizing element in the nuclear balance for two reasons. First, these highly accurate IRBMs were capable of destroying Soviet hard targets, including command -and-control bunkers and missile silos. (44) Second, their flight time from Germany to European Russia was calculated to be only four to six minutes, giving the missiles a “super-sudden first strike” capability. (45) In a crisis, the Soviets could be attacked with little or no warning, and therefore would have to consider striking at the Pershing launchsites before being struck by the US missiles. (46)

The new instructions from Moscow also indicated, without being specific, that the alert was linked to revisions in Soviet military planning, noting that RYAN “now lies at the core of [Soviet] military strategy.” (47) The alert was designed to give Moscow a “period of anticipation essential... to take retaliatory measures. Otherwise, reprisal time would be extremely limited.” (48)

But the repeated emphasis on providing warning of a US attack “at a very early stage” and “without delay” suggests that the Soviets were planning to preempt, not retaliate. If they acquired what they considered to be reliable information about an impending US attack, it would not have made sense for them to wait for the attack to begin before responding; it would have made sense to try to destroy the US missiles before they were launched. Hence the reference to military strategy probably meant that the Soviet high command intended to target the Pershings for preemptive destruction if RYAN indicated plans for a US attack.49

RYAN and East German Intelligence

The KGB's declining effectiveness by the 1980s (see Appendix A) led the Kremlin to turn to its liaison services in Eastern Europe for help with RYAN. It assigned a major role to East Germany's Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), a civilian agency headed by legendary spymaster Markus Wolf that was probably the best foreign intelligence service in the Warsaw Pact — “even better than the KGB,” according to Gordievsky.(50)

The KGB viewed West Germany as its “door to the West” and to NATO, and the HVA had the key to that door. (51) As a result, the KGB rezidentura in East Berlin was the largest in the world and produced as much intelligence as a single directorate at the KGB Center in Moscow. (52) Indeed, German counterintelligence officials believe that the HVA by itself may have obtained up to 80 percent of all Warsaw Pact intelligence on NATO. (53)

The demise of East Germany, the survival of some HVA files, and Wolf's recently published autobiography have all contributed in some measure to documenting the Soviet war scare and how it affected Soviet bloc intelligence operations. Wolf gives some insight into the war scare's origins in a revealing conversation he had with Yuri Andropov in February 1980, when Andropov was still head of the KGB:

“We began discussing the East-West conflict. I had never before seen Andropov so somber and dejected. He described a gloomy scenario in which a nuclear war might be a real threat. His sober analysis came to the conclusion that the US government was striving with all means available to establish nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. He cited statements of President Carter, his adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and of Pentagon spokesmen, all of which included the assertion that under certain circumstances a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union and its allies would be justified....


”Carter's presidency had created great concern in the Kremlin, because he had presented a defense budget of more than $157 billion, which he invested in the MX and Trident missiles and nuclear submarines. One of the top Soviet nuclear strategists confided to me that the resources of our alliance were not sufficient to match this.” (54)

By the early 1980s, Wolf goes on to say, “our Soviet partners had become obsessed with the danger of a nuclear missile attack.” (55) He claims: “Like most intelligent people, I found these war games a burdensome waste of time, but these orders were no more open to discussion than other orders from above.” (56) Wolf created a special staff and built a round-the-clock situation center with a “special communications link” to Moscow dedicated to monitoring a “catalogue” of political and military indicators of an impending US attack. The East German leadership even ordered construction of dispersed command bunkers for top political, military, and intelligence officials.

Wolf put his extensive West German agent network at Moscow's disposal. Priority number one was surveillance of Pershing II and cruise missile sites, which HVA sources had already located and reported to Moscow. (57) The HVA ordered agents in West German ministries, agencies, and defense firms to be on the lookout for technical breakthroughs in weapons research. (58) These agents were instructed to report any new information immediately, without waiting for regularly scheduled meetings with their couriers from East Berlin. (59) The most important requirement was for sensitive data on the Pershing ballistic missile and the Tomahawk cruise missile. This data eluded the East Germans, but they were able to obtain information on the construction, transportation, assembly, and stationing of these missiles. (60)

The control room of an underground bunker built for the East German foreign intelligence service (HVA). This was one of five dispersed command centers constructed by the East Germans in 1983 in response to the Soviet war scare.

The HVA and the VA (the military intelligence service) launched an agent-recruiting drive linked to Operation RYAN. According to one news report, the HVA went after “dozens” of US servicemen, businessmen, and students in West Germany and West Berlin. (61) The West German armed services were also a top-priority target for recruitment; German counterintelligence authorities documented at least 1,500 attempted recruitments of West German officers and NCOs by East German intelligence between 1983 and 1989. Most of those pitched were asked to report on weapons developments, troop strengths, mobilization plans, and/or alert procedures. (62)


The war scare had a major impact on East German intelligence and the way it conducted business. At Soviet insistence, State Security Minister Erich Mielke made RYAN the overriding operational mission of the Ministry for State Security (MfS), the HVA's parent organization, issuing a ministerial order that outlined the entire Soviet collection program. (63) The East Germans also followed — or were ordered to follow — the Soviet example of merging civilian and military intelligence operations. Mielke signed a memorandum of agreement with his counterpart in the Ministry of National Defense and the chief of military intelligence (Verwaltung Aufklärung or VA) that called for across-the-board cooperation in running joint operations, sharing tradecraft, and developing agent communications equipment. (64) During the early 1980s the chief of military intelligence became such a frequent visitor of Mielke's (and Wolf's) that he was given his own entry permit to MfS headquarters. (65)

The War Scare Goes Public

Despite their private concerns, Soviet leaders maintained a public posture of relative calm during 1981-82. Even President Reagan's first Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, later gave Moscow credit for doing so. “The Soviets stayed very, very moderate, very, very responsible during the first three years of this administration. I was mind-boggled with their patience.” (66) But that patience wore thin in 1983.

”Star Wars”

The overt phase of the war scare erupted barely a month into the second phase of RYAN. On 23 March 1983, President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by the media. SDI was a plan for a ground- and space-based, laser-armed antiballistic missile system that, if deployed, would create a shield for US land-based missiles. Four days after the President's announcement — and in direct response — Andropov lashed out. He accused the United States of preparing a first-strike attack on the Soviet Union and asserted that President Reagan was “inventing new plans on how to unleash a nuclear war in the best way, with the hope of winning it.” (67)

Andropov's remarks were unprecedented. (68) He violated a longstanding taboo by citing numbers and capabilities of US nuclear weapons in the mass media. He also referred to Soviet weapons with highly unusual specificity. And for the first time since 1953, the top Soviet leader was telling his nation that the world was on the verge of a nuclear holocaust. If candor is a sign of sincerity, then Moscow was worried.

The SDI announcement came out of the blue for the Kremlin — and for most of the Reagan Cabinet.69 Andropov's advisers urged him not to overreact, but he ignored their advice, accusing President Reagan of “deliberately lying” about Soviet military power to justify SDI. He denounced the missile shield as a “bid to disarm the Soviet Union in the face of the US nuclear threat.” Space-based defense, he added:

“It would open the floodgates of a runaway race of all types of strategic arms, both offensive and defensive. Such is the real significance, the seamy side, so to say, of Washington's —‘defensive conception.’ ...The Soviet Union will never be caught defenseless by any threat.... Engaging in this is not just irresponsible, it is insane.... Washington's actions are putting the entire world in jeopardy.” (70)

SDI had touched a sensitive nerve. The Soviets treated it as an extremely serious development for two reasons. First, despite their boasting in the 1970s, Soviet leaders — and perhaps Andropov most of all--had great respect for US technological capabilities. (71) Second, SDI had a profound psychological impact that reinforced the trend already anticipated in the new Soviet assessment of the “correlation of forces.” In a remarkable tête-à-tête with a US journalist and former arms control official, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff, interpreted the real meaning of SDI:

“We cannot equal the quality of U.S. arms for a generation or two. Modern military power is based on technology, and technology is based on computers. In the US, small children play with computers.... Here, we don't even have computers in every office of the Defense Ministry. And for reasons you know well, we cannot make computers widely available in our society. We will never be able to catch up with you in modern arms until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution.” (72)

This private rumination was all the more remarkable because Ogarkov's public statements showed him to be a hawk's hawk who compared the United States to Nazi Germany and argued repeatedly for more resources to continue the arms competition. The dichotomy between his public statements and his confidential remarks to the US journalist was striking; it indicated that he understood better than most political and other military leaders the challenge posed by American military technology.

KAL 007

At 3:26 a.m. Tokyo time on 1 September 1983, a Soviet Su-15 interceptor fired two air-to-air missiles at a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 airliner, Flight 007, destroying the aircraft and killing all 269 crewmembers and passengers. Soviet air defense units had been tracking the aircraft for more than an hour while it entered and left Soviet airspace over the Kamchatka Peninsula. The order to shoot down the airliner was given as it was about to leave Soviet airspace for the second time after flying over Sakhalin Island. It was probably downed in international airspace.

From US and Japanese communications intercepts, the White House learned about the shootdown within a few hours, and, with Secretary Shultz taking the lead, denounced the Soviet act as deliberate mass murder. President Reagan called it “an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.” (73)

Air Force intelligence dissented from the rush to judgment at the time, and eventually US intelligence reached a consensus that the Soviets probably did not know they were attacking a civilian airliner. (74) The charge probably should have been something akin to criminally negligent manslaughter, not premeditated murder. But the official US position never deviated from the initial assessment. The incident was used to start a vociferous campaign in the United Nations and to spur worldwide efforts to punish the USSR through commercial boycotts, lawsuits, and denial of landing rights for Aeroflot. These efforts focused on indicting the Soviet system and the top leadership as being ultimately responsible. (75)

Moscow did not even acknowledge the incident until September 6, and it delayed an official explanation for three more days. On 9 September, Marshal Ogarkov held a live press conference that ran for two hours. (76) The five-star spin doctor's goal was to prove that —269 innocent victims notwithstanding — the Soviet Union had acted rationally. Ogarkov asserted that the regional air defense unit had identified the aircraft as a US intelligence platform, an RC-135 of the type that routinely performed intelligence operations along a similar fight path. In any event, regardless of whether it was an RC-135 or a 747, he argued, the plane was unquestionably on a US or joint US-Japanese intelligence mission, and the local air defense commander had made the correct decision. The real blame for the tragedy, he insisted, lay with the United States, not the USSR. (77)

A classified memorandum submitted to the Politburo by the Defense Ministry and the KGB shows that the Soviet leadership held much the same view in private. Released in 1992, the memorandum concluded:

“We are dealing with a major, dual-purpose political provocation carefully organized by the US special services. The first purpose was to use the incursion of the intruder aircraft into Soviet airspace to create a favorable situation for the gathering of defense data on our air defense system in the Far East, involving the most diverse systems including the Ferret satellite. Second, they envisaged, if this flight were terminated by us, [the US would use] that fact to mount a global anti-Soviet campaign to discredit the Soviet Union.” (78)

Soviet angst was reflected in the harsh propaganda reaction that followed. Once again Andropov took the lead in bashing the United States. Asserting that an “outrageous military psychosis” had overtaken the US, he declared that “the Reagan administration, in its imperial ambitions, goes so far that one begins to doubt whether Washington has any brakes at all preventing it from crossing the point at which any sober-minded person must stop.” (79)

The local Soviet air defense commander appears to have made a serious but honest mistake. The situation in the region was not normal; his forces had been on high alert and in a state of anxiety following incursions by US aircraft during the spring 1983 Pacific Fleet exercise recounted above. A Soviet demarche contended that US planes had flown some 32 kilometers (20 miles) into Soviet airspace and remained there for up to 20 minutes during several overflights. (80) As a result, the Soviet air defense command was put on alert for the rest of the spring and summer — and possibly longer — and some senior officers were transferred, reprimanded, or dismissed. (81)

The KAL 007 incident was not only a tragedy; it also touched off a dangerous episode in US-Soviet relations, which already had been exacerbated by the war scare. As Dobrynin put it, both sides “went slightly crazy.” For Washington, the incident seemed to express all that was wrong with the Soviet system and to vindicate the administration's critique of the Soviet system. For Moscow, the episode seemed to encapsulate and reinforce the Soviets' worst case assumptions about US policy for several reasons:

President Reagan was quick to seize on the shootdown to broadly indict the Soviet system and its leaders. Andropov, notwithstanding whatever he actually may have believed about Soviet responsibility, was forced onto the defensive and evidently felt compelled to justify the USSR's actions at all costs.


The US follow-on campaign at the UN and in other channels to embarrass and isolate the USSR in the international community undoubtedly contributed to Moscow's penchant to see an anti-Soviet plot. (82) In the Soviet view, a campaign of this scope and magnitude that just happened to dovetail with the Reagan administration's moral critique of the USSR must have been more than simply a chance opportunity seized by Washington in the heat of the moment.83


President Reagan's decision to use the KAL 007 shootdown to persuade Congress to support his requests for increased defense spending and the new MX missile pointed in the same direction, in Moscow's view. Given the Soviets' predilection for conspiracy theorizing, it was not farfetched that they would see a US design behind the combination of circumstances.

The net effect of the crisis was to close off whatever debate was still going on within the Soviet leadership over US intentions. On 29 September, Andropov issued an unusual “declaration” on US-Soviet relations that brought the war scare into sharper public focus:

“The Soviet leadership deems it necessary to inform the Soviet people, other peoples, and all who are responsible for determining the policy of states, of its assessment of the course pursued in international affairs by the current US administration. In brief, it is a militarist course that represents a serious threat to peace.... If anyone had any illusion about the possibility of an evolution for the better in the policy of the present American administration, recent events have dispelled them completely.” (84)

Dobrynin says the last phrase was the key one; the word “completely” was carefully chosen to express the Politburo's consensus that the USSR could not reach any agreement with the Reagan administration. (85) In sum, the aftermath of the downing of KAL 007 heightened Soviet anxiety. Within weeks Soviet intelligence and the Soviet military, almost certainly with the KAL 007 episode in mind, would overreact to a US/NATO military exercise.


Another notable incident in 1983 occurred during an annual NATO command post exercise codenamed ABLE ARCHER 83. The Soviets were familiar with this exercise from previous years, but the 1983 version included two important changes:

In the original scenario (which was later modified), the 1983 exercise was to involve high-level officials, including the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in major roles, with cameo appearances by the President and the Vice President. Such high-level participation would have meant greater publicity and visibility than was the case during past runnings of this exercise.

ABLE ARCHER 83 included a practice drill that took NATO forces through a full-scale simulated release of nuclear weapons.

According to Gordievsky, on the night of November 8 or 9 — he was not sure which — the KGB Center sent a flash cable to West European residencies advising them, incorrectly, that US forces in Europe had gone on alert and that troops at some bases were being mobilized. The cable speculated that the (nonexistent) alert might have been ordered in response to the then-recent bomb attack on the US Marine barracks in Lebanon, or was related to impending US Army maneuvers, or was the beginning of a countdown to a surprise nuclear attack. Recipients were asked to confirm the US alert and evaluate these hypotheses.

Gordievsky described the reaction in stark terms:

“In the tense atmosphere generated by the crises and rhetoric of the past few months, the KGB concluded that American forces had been placed on alert — and might even have begun the countdown to war.... The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss during Operation RYAN. But during ABLE ARCHER 83 it had, without realizing it, come frighteningly close — certainly closer than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.” (86)

The ABLE ARCHER story has been told and retold by journalists with inside contacts in the White House and Whitehall. (87) Three themes run though the various versions: The US and USSR came close to war as a result of Soviet overreaction; only Gordievsky's timely warning to the West kept things from getting out of hand; and Gordievsky's information was an epiphany for President Reagan, convincing him that the Kremlin indeed was fearful of a US surprise nuclear attack:

“Within a few weeks after ...ABLE ARCHER 83, the London CIA station reported, presumably on the basis of information obtained by the British from Gordievsky, that the Soviets had been alarmed about the real possibility that the United States was preparing a nuclear attack against them. [National Security Adviser Robert] McFarlane, who received the reports at the White House, initially discounted them as Soviet scare tactics rather than evidence of real concern about American intentions, and told Reagan of his view in presenting them to the President. But a more extensive survey of Soviet attitudes sent to the White House early in 1984 by CIA director William Casey, based in part on reports from the double agent Gordievsky, had a more sobering effect. Reagan seemed uncharacteristically grave after reading the report and asked McFarlane, “Do you suppose they really believe that? ...I don't see how they could believe that — but it's something to think about.” ...In a meeting the same day, Reagan spoke about the biblical prophecy of Armageddon, a final world-ending battle between good and evil, a topic that fascinated the President. McFarlane thought it was not accidental that Armageddon was on Reagan's mind.” (88)

Is Gordievsky's stark description credible? According to a US foreign affairs correspondent, the “volume and urgency” of Warsaw Pact communications increased during the exercise. (89) In addition, US sources reported that Soviet fighter aircraft with nuclear weapons at bases in East Germany and Poland were placed on alert. (90) But a US expert who queried a number of senior Soviet political and military officials reports that none had heard of ABLE ARCHER, and all denied that it had come to the attention of the Politburo or even the upper levels of the Defense Ministry. (91) Moreover, Dobrynin, who argues that the top leadership took the war threat seriously and devotes several pages in his memoirs to the KAL 007 tragedy, makes no mention of ABLE ARCHER.

An important piece of evidence — the Center's flash message referred to above — is missing from the RYAN cables that Gordievsky published in 1991. ABLE ARCHER 83, it seems, made more of an impression in the White House than in the Kremlin. (92) In any event, it was not comparable to the Cuban crisis, when the superpowers were on a collision course, US nuclear forces were on full alert, and — as recently revealed — the USSR had deployed nuclear weapons in Cuba.

The “Iron Lady” and the “Great Communicator”

Did Gordievsky's reporting bring home the message that the war scare in the Kremlin was serious and that it posed a potential danger of Soviet overreaction? Gordievsky and British co-author Christopher Andrew have said so repeatedly. The information Gordievsky provided to the British “was of enormous importance in providing warning of the almost paranoid fear within some sections of the Soviet leadership that President Reagan was planning a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union,” according to Andrew. (93)

Prime Minister Thatcher herself apparently delivered the chilling message to President Reagan, hoping to convince him to moderate his rhetoric and actions. She evidently believed that US policy toward the USSR had become risky and counterproductive by threatening to undermine NATO's consensus on deployment of US intermediate-range missiles. Thatcher also was mindful of the growing strength of the peace movement in Europe and especially in West Germany.

Thatcher publicly urged a shift in policy on 29 September in an address at the annual dinner for the Churchill Foundation Award in Washington, where she knew her remarks would attract media — and White House — attention. Her theme — “we live on the same planet and must go [on] sharing it” — was a plea for a more accommodating Alliance policy that she spelled out in subsequent speeches. She did not, according to a chronicler of the Thatcher-Reagan partnership, pick up the phone or approach Reagan directly, because:

“The essence of the partnership at this stage was that the two governments were basing their decisions on much the same evidence and on shared assessments at professional level. In particular, both governments would have had the same intelligence. A critical contribution in this field was made over a period of years by Oleg Gordievsky....” (94)

A US journalist who interviewed British intelligence sources believes Gordievsky's reporting had a significant impact on the White House. (95) He adds an interesting twist to the story. The British claimed the KGB was exploiting, and perhaps manipulating, “bluster in Washington” to hype the US threat to Soviet leaders for the KGB's own bureaucratic purposes and interests. London's message to Washington was: stop helping the hawks and start supporting the doves. Whether the British were acting as analysts or spin doctors is open to question.

President Reagan says in his memoirs without reference to British intelligence reports or ABLE ARCHER— that in late 1983 he was surprised to learn that “many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans,” and “many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike.” (96)

In the broad scheme of things, election-year politics and polls showing that the President's anti-Soviet rhetoric was his highest “negative” with US public opinion probably played the main role in the more conciliatory tone he adopted in early 1984. But the President himself said the war scare was “something to think about.” The British intelligence reports appear to have influenced President Reagan — as they were no doubt intended to do — more than they influenced senior White House policy aides, who remained skeptical of the Soviet war scare during 1981-83 and even after Gordievsky had defected and publicly surfaced in 1985.97

War Scare Frenzy in the USSR

In the months following the September 1983 KAL incident, a full-scale war scare unfolded in the USSR. Soviet authorities clearly instigated this through a variety of agitprop activities. Even so, the scare took on a life of its own and threatened to get out of hand before the Kremlin took steps in early 1984 to calm public fears. (98)

Soviet attacks on President Reagan reached a fever pitch. Moscow compared him to Hitler and alleged that he had ties to the Mafia. The Soviet media hammered home that the danger of nuclear war was higher than at any time since World War II.

Radio Liberty interviews with Soviet citizens traveling abroad suggested that much of the Soviet public was genuinely alarmed. A series of officially sponsored activities at home fed the frenzy. Moscow organized mass “peace” rallies; sponsored “peace” classes in schools and universities; arranged closed briefings on the ''war danger'' for party activists and military personnel; designated a “civil defense” month; broadcast excerpts from Stalin's famous 1941 speech to troops parading through Red Square on their way to defend Moscow from the approaching German army; and televised a heavyhanded Defense Ministry film that depicted a warmongering America bent on world domination. The Politburo also considered, but rejected, proposals to shift to a six-day industrial workweek and to create a special “defense fund” to raise money for the military.

What were the Soviet leadership's motives? Some observers who have studied the war scare have written it off as political theater — as an elaborate orchestration to release tensions over KAL 007 at home and promote the ongoing Soviet “peace offensive” abroad. (99) But it clearly was more than that. The leadership would not have invoked the memory of World War II--which is emotionally charged and had an almost sacred significance for the Soviet people--solely for propaganda purposes. It would not have fueled popular fears about nuclear extinction just to boost morale and influence public opinion abroad.

The regime appears to have aggravated popular fears of war for a specific purpose: to prepare the population for the possibility that repeated promises to raise living standards might have to be abandoned in order to increase defense spending in the face of a growing danger of a US military strike on the USSR. (100) The Kremlin, it seems, had decided that the only way to make new sacrifices palatable was to play to the public's fears. (101) The ploy was a risky one, not only because the Soviet people had come to expect improvements in their living standards, but also because developments in Poland at that time were underscoring how popular unrest could develop into revolt against a Communist regime.

With the improvement in US-Soviet relations after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the domestic war scare subsided as quickly as it had emerged. Before it did, however, the leadership apparently felt compelled to allay the public's fears with assurances that the USSR was in a position to deter war and, if necessary, to defend itself. This was further evidence that the war scare was genuinely felt among the populace.

The Enduring Trauma of BARBAROSSA

The Soviet Union and the United States both entered World War II in 1941 as victims of surprise attacks, but the impact of Operation BARBAROSSA — the German codename for Hitler's June 1941 attack on the USSR — was even more of an enduring national trauma than Pearl Harbor was for the United States. The German invasion was the worst military disaster in Russian history. (102) It should have been anticipated and could have been countered by the Soviets but was not, mainly because of a failure to interpret indications and warnings accurately.

The connection between ignored warnings and surprise attack has never been forgotten in Moscow. For decades after the war, Soviet leaders seemed obsessed with the lessons of 1941, which were as much visceral as intellectual in Soviet thinking about war and peace. (103)

The 1941 analogy clearly had an impact on the way RYAN requirements were formulated and implemented. The historical example of Operation BARBAROSSA, moreover, may explain the sense of urgency that KGB officers such as Gordievsky and Shvets attributed to the Kremlin even while these officers themselves discounted the threat. The gap in perceptions may have reflected a gap in generations. Members of the Brezhnev-Andropov generation had experienced the German war firsthand as the formative experience of their political lives. But for the younger generation born just before, during, or after the war, BARBAROSSA was history rather than living memory.

The Soviets' intelligence “failure” of 1941 was a failure of analysis, not collection. (104) Stalin received multiple, detailed, and timely warnings of the impending invasion from a variety of open and clandestine sources. But he chose to interpret intelligence data with a best case or not-so-bad-case hypothesis, assuming — incorrectly — that Hitler would not attack without issuing an ultimatum or fight a two-front war. Stalin erred in part because he deceived himself and in part because German counterintelligence misled him with an elaborate deception plan. (105) Possibly because of this precedent, Stalin's heirs may have decided that it was better to look through a glass darkly than through rose-colored lenses. This, it appears, is why Operation RYAN used an explicit worst case methodology to search for indications and warning of a US surprise attack.

RYAN also seems to have incorporated — or in some instances misapplied — other lessons from 1941. Despite the prowess of his intelligence services, Stalin distrusted clandestinely acquired intelligence, including agent reporting and even communications and signals intercepts.106 He did so because he was convinced that such sources could be controlled by the enemy and corrupted by disinformation — a belief that led him to reject accurate as well as inaccurate information. He insisted that Soviet intelligence look instead for indirect indicators of war planning that could not be concealed or manipulated. He went along, for example, with a proposal by his chief of military intelligence for surveying mutton prices in Nazi-occupied Europe; the intelligence official thought the Germans would need sheepskin coats for winter military campaigning in Russia and, by buying up existing livestock supplies, would flood the market with cheap mutton. (107) This deceptively simple indicator turned out to be simply deceptive; Hitler, believing he could defeat the Red Army by the fall of 1941, did not prepare for wintertime operations.

RYAN requirements reveal the same kind of unorthodox thinking. For example, the KGB residency in London was instructed to monitor prices paid for blood at urban donor banks. (108) The KGB Center assumed that prices would rise on the eve of war as blood banks scurried to stockpile supplies. But there was a problem with this assumption: British donor banks do not pay for blood — contributions are voluntary. In another such example of RYAN requirements, the KGB residency in London was told to visit meatpacking plants, looking for signs of “mass slaughter of cattle and putting of meat into long cold storage.” (109) The parallel with Soviet intelligence requirements of 1939-41 is close enough to suggest that the KGB was digging them out of old NKVD (the KGB's predecessor) and GRU files.

Finally, there was another plausible — although unprovable — link between 1941 and 1981. The 1941 disaster was Stalin's fault, but he blamed Soviet intelligence. This left an indelible stain on the Soviet services, and the subject was so sensitive that it could not be discussed openly until the advent of glasnost. (110) One motive behind Andropov's decision to launch Operation RYAN in 1981 may have been a determination not to let history repeat itself. Soviet intelligence certainly had a vested interest in promoting a dire threat assessment of US intentions, but professional pride and a wish to avoid being a scapegoat may have been involved as well.


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