“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”Matthew 7:7
In November 1982, following the death of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union gained a new but suitably stern-faced General Secretary of the Communist Party, in the guise of the then 68 year-old Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov. Known for his ‘politeness, calmness, unselfishness, patience, intelligence and exceptionally sharp memory’, the “Butcher of Budapest”1 was certainly no slouch when it came to deportations, political arrests, persecution of dissidents, and the abuse of psychiatry. Vladimir Putin speaks very highly of him.
Yet, despite having all of the qualities to be expected of the quintessential Soviet, Cold War leader, Andropov was to enjoy only the briefest of totalitarian supremacies, dying just eighteen months after his appointment. When it came to it, no amount of Gulags, no number of pseudo-psychiatric detentions, and no level of secret service surveillance could rescue his tyranny from the ravages of interstitial nephritis, nephrosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes and chronic kidney failure. The point was not lost on the Politburo: Try someone younger in future.2
But to focus upon the brevity of Andropov’s grim reign of oppression is to miss the point. Andropov’s place in history may be a particularly transient one, but it was still profoundly important, since it was he who perhaps came closest to inflicting nuclear annihilation upon the world. And he came as close as he did because of one very important principle that should be held in mind by anyone who is concerned with assessing an apocalyptic threat: If you believe in such a threat, you only have to demand that everyone look for the evidence and you will find all that you could possibly need.
As a former Chairman of the KGB, Andropov (you will not be surprised to discover) had a very distrustful nature, and he used most of this distrust to paint a picture of deviousness and duplicitously aggressive intent when it came to the Western military and political overlords. In fact, there was one idea that Andropov would cling to religiously: The Americans were intent on launching a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and the only way of defending against it would be to pre-empt their pre-emption. Consequently, upon coming to power Andropov lost no time instigating a massive programme of surveillance aimed at gaining the earliest possible indication that such an attack was in the planning. Nearly all of the KGB’s resources were to be redeployed in the pursuance of such evidence. The undertaking went under the codename ‘Operation RYAN’.3
Now here’s the thing: Just about everyone who worked for the KGB thought that Andropov’s idea was ridiculous. However, not a single one would be so stupid as to suggest as much to their superior. Consequently, instead of feeding back evidence to the contrary (since in reality that was the only evidence available to them) they instead sought and found a motherlode of incriminating evidence proving that Andropov’s paranoia was entirely justified. The reports came in thick and fast. There was the unusually large number of cars appearing in Pentagon car parks. There were the extra lights on in the office after normal working hours. When extra security was introduced at American military bases following heightened levels of terrorist alert, the KGB were on hand to misinterpret it. And when there wasn’t any of that, there were the total fabrications desperately written up in a bid to protect and further the reputations of the KGB’s rank and file. The only things that were more inventive were the expense reports demanding recompense for the prodigious quantities of vodka quaffed whilst constructing the case for pre-emptive Armageddon.
Operation RYAN was proving a massive success. Believing the Soviet Union to be in the grip of an existential crisis, Andropov had put in place all of the information gathering he needed to ensure that the Soviet Union ended up in the grip of an existential crisis. All that was missing was a gesture on the part of NATO that could only be interpreted as a thinly veiled cover story for a pre-emptive attack. It was well known that wargame manoeuvres would be the ideal ruse by which genuine preparations for an attack could be hidden. So to settle the issue once and for all, it would only need NATO to launch the largest wargames in its history, particularly if such games were to feature details that were suspiciously novel in their realism.
And so it was at this moment that NATO launched the largest wargames in its history, making sure that they featured details that were suspiciously novel in their realism.4 The Soviets had their Operation RYAN; to complete the apocalyptic farce, NATO had Operation ABLE ARCHER 83.
Ignorance is extermination
Some might say that, given the Soviet Union’s paranoia, such provocation was the height of irresponsibility. However, you have to see this in the context of the day. It wasn’t that long ago that the Soviet Union had shot down KAL 007, leading President Reagan to brand the USSR ‘an evil empire’. The last thing that America wanted was to be seen as weak in the face of such aggression. Certainly, there was lots of rhetoric coming from the Soviet Union accusing the USA of seeking to launch a pre-emptive attack, but this was dismissed as propaganda: Of course the Soviet Union would want to encourage a de-escalation since that would give them the ideal opportunity to strike pre-emptively; there was no way that the Americans were going to fall for that old trick. Besides which, Reagan had been in too many Hollywood movies to understand how anyone might seriously think that the ‘good guys’ could instigate the aggression; consequently, any accusations to that effect had to be bogus. Except, of course, that is exactly what Andropov did believe, and with an unshakeable certitude!
Andropov had seen enough, and so the Warsaw Pact’s aircraft were duly loaded with their full complement of nuclear bombs and the ICBM silos were brought to launch readiness. All it needed was the command from the Supreme Leader to instigate the conflagration. Of course, the West saw all of this but remained sanguine. As far as they were concerned, the enemy was just wanting to join in with the fun of the games. Little did they suspect that their ‘playmates’ were deadly serious and in the final stages of preparation for a pre-emptive nuclear strike that they fully intended prosecuting.
And then a miracle happened. On November 11th 1983, exactly on schedule, Operation ABLE ARCHER came to an end and Andropov commanded that the silo doors be closed.
Throughout Operation ABLE ARCHER the Americans had been blissfully oblivious to the blooming oblivion. The British had a spy within the KGB5 who had warned of Operation RYAN, but this warning came too late to stop Operation ABLE ARCHER from going ahead. Nevertheless, Reagan did finally get the message and, from that point onwards, both sides committed to improving lines of communication. The return of such an atmosphere of toxic suspicion would require another ex KGB man of similar thinking to Andropov to take up the reins. That man, of course, is Putin.
With the climate change issue in mind, there are several points that need to be made here.
Firstly, fear is a hugely powerful motivator and not everything that is done whilst in the grip of fear can be said to be rational. When the fear is driven from the top, the irrationality is only compounded.
Secondly, it doesn’t need a conspiracy to explain the rapidly self-reinforcing outcome of a moral panic. All that is needed is a belief to be held genuinely by the authority of the day and societal pressures will do the rest. The belief itself doesn’t even need to be promulgated. All that is necessary is for there to be some expediency associated with the act of behaving as if in the thrall of belief. The pressures within the KGB were immense. Any department that was not generating enough corroborating evidence suffered severe criticism. We have reached that point in society as far as climate change is concerned. You can see it in every journalist’s desperate invocation of climate change. And the recent censorship of the BBC’s Bitesize website suggests that the opprobium dealt out to anybody who holds a dissenting view is now at least as extreme as that experienced within the KGB under Andropov’s rule.
Thirdly, it is astonishing to see just how extreme the accepted ‘solution’ can be when faced with the perception of an existential threat. The Soviet leaders would have been just as aware as the Americans were of the inevitable self-destruction to be expected following a pre-emptive nuclear strike. And yet they were perfectly willing to take that step. The only possible explanation is that they suspected that the Americans could survive by making the first move, and they were determined not to let that happen. Better that both sides perished rather than letting the enemy prevail. Nowadays, it’s almost as if the climate activists suspect that capitalist society might survive despite global warming, and they are prepared to wreck everything in order not to allow such a possibility.
Fourthly, what happened during Andropov’s reign was not an historical aberration. Time and again, the same principle has applied: As far as fear-driven surveillance is concerned, it is always a case of ‘seek the evidence and ye shall find it’. It happened to the Soviets with Operation RYAN and it happened again to the CIA with Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Notwithstanding the probity of the scientific evidence for climate change, it would be bizarre not to assume that the same principle is applying. Some things have to be believed to be seen.
Fithly, there may be no novel wargames to consider, but the weather certainly has plenty of ways to unnerve the suspicious. For Operation ABLE ARCHER, read Hurricane ARCHIE.
And last, but not least, the risk to the world of an accidental nuclear destruction has not gone away. With Putin (the ex KGB colonel) flexing his muscles, and Sino-American relationships deteriorating daily, the risk is probably as high today as it has ever been. And yet no one outside of the Pentagon seems to be giving it a second thought. The menacing symbolism of the mushroom cloud has now been replaced by a polar bear perched perilously upon an ice floe. Global warming, our children are taught nowadays, is THE threat to the modern world. They don’t need to be terrified by an ever-present threat of vaporisation, since the threat of a slow, lingering toasting will do the trick just as nicely. Nuclear conflict is now treated as the over-hyped concern that we can all quietly forget, whilst global warming is the real deal. The bottom line is that there does not appear to be any correlation between the reality of risk and the choice of propagandizing that appears to be dominating the current National Curriculum.
Be that as it may, I can assure you that, as a child of the sixties who has investigated the reality of both risks – nuclear and climatic – it is still the spectre of nuclear destruction that keeps me awake at night. The only problem is that, either way, I am unlikely to live to say I told you so. Which is a shame because that’s what I like to do best in life.
 A title earned following his role in the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.
 In fact, it took a little while for the message to fully sink in. Andropov’s successor was the even more decrepit Konstantin Chernenko. It was only upon the election of Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet leadership finally entertained the idea of a non-geriatric succession.
 RYAN was an acronym for ‘Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie’ (translating as ‘Nuclear Missile Attack’).
 The details that spooked the soviets included unprecedented use of radio silence, new and sophisticated message formats and a heightened day-to-day interest shown by Western leaders.
 Oleg Gordievsky was a colonel of the KGB working in London whilst operating as a double agent for MI6. He had become disaffected by the Soviet system following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.