It may be no coincidence that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, have held at least two phone conversations in the last three days—after months of going incommunicado—while both countries are holding their annual nuclear-war exercises.
Their talks have reportedly been focused on Russia’s persistent threat to use nuclear weapons as a way of reversing its setbacks in the Ukraine war as well as its claim—by all accounts, false—that Kyiv is about to set off a “dirty bomb”(a conventional weapon laced with radioactive waste). But the tangible context of NATO and Russian nuclear-war drills—which, by coincidence, started last week and continue for a few more days—must have heightened tensions and given both sides’ military leaders a good reason to open up phone lines.
They are certainly aware that, nearly 40 years ago, another nuclear exercise, held against a backdrop of great tension, very nearly triggered World War III.
Such exercises routinely take place around this time of year, and have for many decades. Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who was President Obama’s ambassador to NATO, describes them as “pretty full-blown” rehearsals, “involving nuclear-capable aircraft from the U.S. and Allied countries—B-52s, electronic-warfare [planes] and fighters for defense and offensive penetration.” NATO’s current exercises were planned and publicly announced well before the invasion of Ukraine, and are set in and around Belgium, far away from the Russian border, to avoid misunderstanding.
The earlier NATO game, the one that nearly set off a real war, was larger, more elaborate, and more provocative than usual. Called Able Archer, it lasted from Nov. 7 through 11, 1983 and was designed to test the procedures that the U.S. and its Western allies would follow if a war against the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact escalated from a conventional battle to nuclear war.
A fleet of military cargo-transport planes flew 19,000 soldiers from the U.S. to bases in Europe while maintaining radio silence. Strategic Air Command crews taxied B-52 bombers to their runways and loaded them with dummy bombs that looked remarkably like the real thing. Commanders at SAC headquarters in Omaha, Neb., raised the nuclear-alert level through all five DEFCON settings, including to “general alert”—the final stage before war.
The Soviets were monitoring all of this, as they generally did (and as U.S. commanders knew they would), but they reacted in ways that they never had during previous exercises—in ways similar to how they might act if the U.S. was gearing up for a real attack. The chief of Soviet armed forces ran the response from a bunker outside Moscow. Nuclear-capable aircraft in East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia—the Warsaw Pact’s frontline countries in a war against NATO—were placed on high alert. Helicopters transported nuclear warheads from their storage sites to missile launchers in western Russia.
U.S. intelligence agencies were watching all this. Under long-established Cold War procedures, if the Soviets took such actions, the agencies were to notify the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the secretary of defense, who would then respond by escalating maneuvers still further. However, a three-star general named Leonard Perroots, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence at the U.S. Air Force’s European headquarters in West Germany, decided instead to do nothing. He’d warned colleagues that Able Archer 83 would be needlessly provocative, and so interpreted the Soviets’ actions not as a threat but as a rational defensive response to what they saw as an American threat.
While all this was going on, Oleg Gordievsky, a London-based KGB colonel who had turned double agent, was providing his British handlers with documents revealing that Soviet officials were viewing Able Archer as prelude to an attack by the U.S. and NATO—and responding with their own nuclear alert. The British shared this intel with their U.S. counterparts.
Top CIA officials were skeptical, dismissing the Soviets’ “war scare” as “propaganda” designed to inflame anti-American sentiments in Western Europe. In any case, Able Archer ended after its five-day run; U.S. crews returned to their bases; in response, the Soviets relaxed. The following May, in a Special National Intelligence Estimate on the subject, the CIA concluded “strongly” that—both in response to Able Archer and as a general proposition—“Soviet actions are not inspired by, and Soviet leaders do not perceive, a genuine danger of imminent conflict or confrontation with the United States.”
However, six years later, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board—a panel of experts with insiders’ experience and outsiders’ disinterest—disputed this judgment. In a 94-page report stamped Top Secret and six other still higher classification labels, its authors concluded: “There is little doubt in our minds that the Soviets were genuinely worried by Able Archer” and feared that NATO was about to launch an attack “under cover” of the exercise. “At least some Soviet forces,” the report added, “were preparing to preempt or counterattack” what they saw as an imminent first strike.
Much of the board’s study has since been declassified. Lieut. Gen. Perroots’ after-action report, written in 1989 upon his retirement from the Air Force, was later declassified by the State Department but is still considered Top Secret by the CIA. (The private National Security Archive, which obtained the report in a Freedom of Information Act request, has published the report here.)
The context of the war scare is worth noting. 1983 was a particularly frazzled year of the Cold War. In March, President Ronald Reagan gave an address to the National Association of Evangelists, referring to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Two weeks later, he delivered his prime-time “Star Wars” speech, calling on scientists to invent a space-based device that could shoot down Soviet missiles as they headed toward the United States—which the Soviets interpreted as a first strike-weapon. (The U.S. would launch a nuclear first strike, then shoot down missiles that Moscow would launch in retaliation.) In September, Soviet air defense crews shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, mistaking it for a U.S. spy plane, as it accidentally crossed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers onboard, including a U.S. congressman. That same month, Soviet early-warning radars sounded the alarm for what seemed to be an attack by U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles. (The chief air defense officer on duty, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, figured this had to be a false alarm and decided—on his own initiative—not to notify his superiors. If he’d been more like his comrades who downed KAL 007 a month earlier, World War III might have started that day.) Finally, in December, the Kremlin broke off all arms-control negotiations. Communications between the two superpowers shut down almost entirely.
At that point, Reagan decided that the Cold War was getting too hot, that he needed to tone down his rhetoric and policies toward Moscow. His new approach took a while to take off: two Soviet leaders—Yuri Andropov (who had been the director of the KGB before rising to the Kremlin’s helm) and, after him, the sclerotic Konstantin Chernenko—died before a genuine reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, improbably emerged as Communist Party chairman.
The parallels to the present day are limited. In 1983, the Soviet Union hadn’t invaded a neighboring European country; tense as the times were, the nuclear scare didn’t play out against the backdrop of an actual shooting war.
But this is all the more reason to take note of the lessons from Able Archer. There is currently no basis for diplomacy with Moscow, over Ukraine or much else. But American and Russian leaders—especially their military leaders—should at least talk with each other, if just to avoid the quite reasonable misunderstandings that nearly unleashed war in 1983.