“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.

Operation RYAN

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.

Parallels

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.

Notes:

[1] A title earned following his role in the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

[2] 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.

[3] RYAN was an acronym for ‘Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie’ (translating as ‘Nuclear Missile Attack’).

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

31 Comments

  1. Mark,

    That’s very kind of you. I enjoyed writing it, which I like to think is a good sign.

    Jit,

    That’s the sort of news that in the height of the Cold War would have had the Western press in meltdown. Nowadays, it has to play second fiddle to reports of dragonfly wing patterns being affected by global warming.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great piece.

    “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…”

    “Secondly, it doesn’t need a conspiracy to explain the rapidly self-reinforcing outcome of a moral panic…”

    Yes and Yes. And these can hold hands too. But they are qualitatively different, meaning different rules despite also overlap and similarities, and a particular social phenomenon may feature one much more than another. So the ‘grip of fear’, aka herd panic, is the main driver of irrationalities in the Covid case. And ‘moral panic’, aka existential cultural belief, is the main driver of irrationalities in the climate-change case. Both are *group* behaviours, and some effects are common. But others are very different; for instance cultural adherents have their brains configured to ‘know’ somewhere deep inside (i.e. not consciously) that the cultural fears aren’t in the slightest bit real, just a signalling of group membership (so they don’t *act* like they’re real, even though they virtue signal madly). This is not the case for herd panic.

    Regarding hand holding, a strong cultural dominance (cold war communism) can make a society much more vulnerable to a herd panic should one arise. And the fears of nuclear holocaust were certainly real enough yet can also cause the observed irrationality. Going the opposite way, so to speak, a culture can take advantage of a seemingly unrelated herd panic; ‘build back better’, aka ‘build back greener’, is just such a case.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John. Thank you for this. Your last paragraph has particular resonance for me (although I was a child of the Forties). It was not uncommon for me to be confronted by undergraduates pushing the view that the environment had never before been so threatened as by climate change. Early on I countered by offering them the Cuban Crisis but they couldn’t understand. For several days when I was an undergraduate my friends and I just gave up. We expected to die in a nuclear holocaust and so played cards rather than go to lectures. Later I didn’t bother mentioning the Crisis, it was impossible to convey to the then modern day youf just how bad conditions had got. It is pleasant now to think that an imminent holocaust no longer haunts us, but fear for many has transformed into concerns about sea-level rise, of increased extreme weather events and a thousand and one other changes.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant. A couple of points of detail, since detail is so important in a subject like this.
    1) KAL007 was undoubtedly a spy plane. The Americans gambled that the Russians wouldn’t shoot it down because it was full of innocent civilians. The Russians shot it down, demonstrating the weakness of American tactical thinking. The Americans would have done the same thing if the Russians had sent a spy plane full of civilians over the USA.
    2) The “threat of vaporisation” is not the most likely outcome of a nuclear attack. Only the lucky few are vaporised. The majority die slowly as their lungs melt with their faces full of deeply embedded shards of window pane.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thanks Andy. I think the Operation RYAN fiasco illustrates a number of the points you have made previously regarding cultural phenomena. The Able Archer incident serves as a good analogue for how the unusual can persuade the fearful that a problem has turned critical. The link between extreme weather and the declaration of a climate emergency follows very similar lines.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Alan,

    I was too young to apprehend the Cuban Crisis and my parents did a good job of hiding the terror. The scary thing about Able Archer is that the world had no idea it was on the brink, and yet many historians now claim that we came closer than we did during Cuba. If people just knew how many near misses there have been they wouldn’t be nearly as relaxed as they are now.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Given that the whole nuclear deterrence edifice relies on not being sure what the other side has got (in its mind or in its silos) I’ve never understood why one side didn’t just announce: “Hey! We’ve invented this secret thingy that can detect your secret thingies and destroy them before you can do anything with them.” How could you be sure it wan’t true?

    Then in March 2019 Putin did just that, with his announcement of hypersonic missiles and torpedoes. Apparently knowledgable commenters said: “Aircraft carriers are now scrap iron.”

    The Western media might be expected to react in two ways: they might have said “Liar,” or they might have said “this is the greatest threat we’ve ever faced from the evillest enemy ever.” They did neither. Democrats in the USA might have been expected to claim that any refusal by Trump to pump up military research budgets would be evidence of collusion with the Kremlin. They didn’t. Putin might have broken wind in public for all the media attention his announcement got. It was as if the nuclear balance of power was just too 20th century.

    On JIT’s point about China’s new silos, this article points out why they’re a good thing:
    https://www.moonofalabama.org/2021/07/why-china-needs-more-nukes.html#more

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Geoff,

    I’ve read quite a lot about KAL007 and have gone from being convinced it was part of a spy mission to being much more open-minded. What I will say, however, is that the flight pattern was entirely consistent with the tactics employed by Western surveillance overflights, in which one plane deliberately provokes a response that is then picked up as SIGINT by a second plane.

    I take your point regarding vapourisation but it was the nuclear demise that contrasted best against the global warming threat. To be accurate we should both be playing up the role played by radiation.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I wasn’t born when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, but I grew up under the shadow of the Cold War and constant fear of nuclear conflagration. When I was quite young I read “On the Beach” by Nevil Shute, and it scared me witless. I still remember the incredulous feelings of joy when the Berlin Wall came down late in 1989, and it seemed as though the threat of nuclear annihilation had receded greatly. And yet it does remain a real and present danger, and is certainly more of a risk to my continued existence than is the “climate crisis”.

    Given that George Monbiot is a year older than me, you might think he would have a similar take on all this. And yet, in his article which I recently mocked, “How the BBC let climate deniers walk all over it” he called climate change “[t]he greatest crisis humanity has ever faced”. And he criticised the BBC for inaccurate reporting! It’s a strange world, right enough.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Mark,

    >”[t]he greatest crisis humanity has ever faced”

    Some years ago, I wrote an article for a safety engineering journal on the subject of nuclear weapon safety. The research I did for that article left me in no doubt just how lucky we all were to survive the Cold War. I’m sorely tempted to reproduce it on Cliscep but it would be too off-topic.

    Monbiot is just an ignorant fool.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. There’s a new book on the Cuban crisis, “Nuclear Folly” that suggests a Soviet sub commander would have launched his load of missiles except for some adventitious incident.
    Terrific piece John, I’ll check if my Quadrant would like to re-run it.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. John. Open Mic ought to be a suitable site for your “off topic” article. That’s what it was originally designed for.

    Like

  13. I’d be happy to see John’s article here. With half a dozen international crises on the horizon, (Taiwan, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iran etc.) the prospect of nuclear war may soon be a thing again, and climate will have to compete with it as it did with Covid and Brexit. THEY are sure that climate change is a catastrophe of unimaginable gravity. Surely discussion of really serious possible catastrophes is in order?

    Liked by 4 people

  14. Geoff, Alan,

    I probably will post it then. What people probably don’t appreciate is how much our safety depends upon things not going wrong. The opportunities for mishap are much more numerous than is normally appreciated, as is the number of near misses we have had. As you say, Geoff, let’s repossess the word ‘crisis’.

    Liked by 5 people

  15. Geoff, from yesterday re: Moon of Alabama.

    I think they have this about 180 degrees wrong. The new silos are to protect missiles from other missiles, so much is obvious. But there is not the slightest chance that the US would ever fire first, so they are not needed to protect the Chinese arsenal from a first strike.

    (That’s free strategic advice to our Chinese friends.)

    This is my worst-case scenario: China invades Taiwan. The US sends forces to oppose, and the Chinese forces are not up to the job. In preference to humiliation, Winnie decides to pop off a nuke.

    Now suddenly the field of silos takes on its true purpose: to forestall a retaliation.

    Like

  16. Jit

    But there is not the slightest chance that the US would ever fire first..

    You and I may know that, but imagine the Chinese leadership basing their defence strategy on the firm knowledge that the USA never ever initiates hostilities in foreign countries. At least, not nuclear hostilities, not until they’d exhausted all conventional means – which would be what, against an army of 2 million plus?

    Like

  17. Great post John. I’d like to note that the Andropov era had its own version of Greta Thunberg in Samantha Smith, a ten year old school girl who wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov and became something of a celebrity ambassador and then died in a plane crash a few years later. Since the peace movement didn’t have all these international conventions back then, Samantha became an actress starring with Robert Wagner in a TV series called Lime Street. I think this is sort of relevant because Greta’s parents are both thespians.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Thanks for a sober reminder John.

    and thanks to JIT & Geoff for relevant links.

    just shows what can happen when you “take your eye off the ball”

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I’d just like to remind everyone that it was my genius to foresee John’s.

    OK, yeah, I only glimpsed a fraction of his true talent. I never saw this article coming; but how often does *anyone* write something this good?

    Anyway, John, the above post, which is superb, isn’t just a triumph for me. Sure, it was me who vouched for you; I’m the one who took you on; I corrected the spelling of one of the words in your first article. It’s your achievement too, in a way. No, really: you wrote it. So take a moment out to give yourself an elbow-bump as well.

    !!!

    B.

    Liked by 7 people

  20. Brad,

    I was working as a waitress at a cocktail bar, that much is true.

    It’s the other stuff about genius that needs further checking.

    It’s really good to hear from you, Brad. You should pop in here more often.

    Liked by 6 people

  21. dfhunter,

    “Take your eye off the ball”

    As they did with the threat from pandemics. At least pandemic was in the Government’s National Risk Register. For reasons not properly explained, nuclear conflict isn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Andy

    your comment (9 July) was characteristically interesting.

    I’m curious about this:

    “cultural adherents have their brains configured to ‘know’ somewhere deep inside (i.e. not consciously) that the cultural fears aren’t in the slightest bit real, just a signalling of group membership (so they don’t *act* like they’re real, even though they virtue signal madly)”

    Is it normal for a person’s unconscious belief to have such a dramatic (and externally obvious) influence on their behavior?

    When it *does* happen, can you “make” the person conscious of their belief by drawing their attention to the fact that their behavior makes no sense without it?

    Like

  23. Brad, I think we’ve passed through this before, a year or so ago…

    “Is it normal for a person’s unconscious belief to have such a dramatic (and externally obvious) influence on their behavior?”

    Yes, for strong cultural beliefs, absolutely normal. The most common example is religious belief. [About two thirds of the planet is still formally religious, and about half of the rest still profess some kind of spirituality even if less connected to the formal religions. About a hundred years ago, essentially everyone was religious. In fact this didn’t stop detectable innate skepticism throughout history, but this tended to be aimed at a particular brand of worship or at a perceived degeneracy of practitioners, not at the core narratives themselves].

    “When it *does* happen, can you “make” the person conscious of their belief by drawing their attention to the fact that their behavior makes no sense without it?”

    Typically, no. Have you ever tried to persuade a religious person about the non-existence of God? And remember your friend, who up to last year at any rate you completely failed to persuade via reason and the pointing out of illogicality. While one can’t speak to every case and rarely one might succeed (especially where the adherent was already a waverer, or with conflicted beliefs from multiple domains), generally such approaches cause the subject to be uncomfortable, which in turn usually leads to entrenchment rather than a realization that the cultural beliefs are unfounded.

    This is a ‘feature’ of all humanity, not a ‘flaw’. Cultural groups were (and may still be) a huge net *advantage*, which is why the behaviours are so deeply embedded. Some animals have cultural behaviour, its development pre-dates reason and we are dealing with strong emotive pathways here, not logic. Plus we’ve apparently experienced about 100,000 religions, so plenty of mileage via which cultural behaviours have developed much subtlety and complexity.

    An irony in the climate-change case is that Greta *correctly* spotted the *apparent* hypocrisy. She was right that everyone was *not* acting as though the ‘climate emergency’ is literally true. Including all the leaderships. And despite the ubiquitous messaging turned up to 11. She just had the wrong explanation. Instead of being very lazy or liars or nefarious FF supporters profiting despite the coming doom, they are just *believing*. But there’s no reason she would know this. It’s possible her condition led to her spotting the inconsistency; people with Asperger’s interpret communication too literally. They don’t have the correct ‘social decodes’ installed. So this this may include the decode that ‘climate emergency’ means only that ‘I belong to this cultural club’, not that there’s actually a climate emergency.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Belated footnote:

    There has been some debate regarding just how close to the brink we all came back in 1983, and just how serious the Soviets were about launching their own pre-emptive attack. At the time, the British were a lot more concerned than the Americans. It wasn’t just their knowledge of Operation RYAN that concerned them. After all, the Soviet’s reaction to ABLE ARCHER had not been seen previously in response to any other NATO exercise. For example, they had never previously moved their mobile SS-20 missiles to camouflaged firing positions. Nor had Marshall Ogarkov, the Chief of the General Staff, ever seen fit to take up his position in the command bunker below Moscow. The CIA were confident that no misunderstanding would be possible because the Soviets had enough spies within NATO to understand that it was only an exercise. But, of course, they were assuming that the KGB rank and file would be reporting accurately to their superiors, without fear of recrimination (remember also that Stalin had two of his spies shot because they dared to warn of Hitler’s imminent attack in 1941, when the official view was that no such attack could happen).

    Perhaps the best analysis to emerge in later years came from a CIA report not made public until 2015. It stated that the American authorities had committed an:

    “…especially grave error to assume that since we know the US is not going to start World War III, the leaders of the Kremlin will also believe that.”

    The report adds that:

    “The Soviets had concern that the West might decide to attack the USSR without warning during a time of vulnerability … thus compelling the Soviets to consider a pre-emptive strike at the first sign of US preparations of nuclear strike … we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”

    You could say that.

    Liked by 2 people

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