The announcement last week that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has developed a new range of “invincible” nuclear missiles has come as a bit of a shock to some. Most pundits and politicians had been focused on Russia's alleged involvement in the 2016 Presidential Election and subsequent enquiries now underway. I wasn’t surprised. In Russia there exists a deep-seated mistrust of the Western Hemisphere. This mistrust has always been there but from time to time it appears to manifest itself into a state of paranoia. Originating from the past it is a history that policy-makers in the west must understand before responding to these new weapons.
Virtually landlocked with vast borders on all sides, Russia’s history is littered with invasions and incursions that have left scars deeply seared into its psyche. The two events we all know of that are engrained into Russian culture are Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, and Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa in 1941. To these you can add Sweden’s invasion of 1709 when Charles XII invaded Russia from bases in Poland, and the humiliation of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918 which saw the loss of 150,000 square kilometers including the Baltic States.
Just a decade after the loss of over 20 million Russians in World War Two, the Soviet Union was able to construct a military alliance of satellite countries. The Warsaw Pact, originally the 'Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance,' was seen by the Soviet Union as more of a counter-balance to NATO. Behind this massive eastern buffer zone, armed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, it felt relatively safe following a policy of mutually assured destruction. Despite this, throughout the Cold War and 'Arms Race' with the United States there was always an underlying fear of yet another attack from the west. And in November 1983, mistrust and miscalculation brought the world to the brink of destruction.
By the late 1970s, East-West relations had improved with both Détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). But after the invasion of Afghanistan (1979) and the election of both Margaret Thatcher (1979) and Ronald Reagan (1980) Cold War tensions began to build. Reagan openly escalated the Cold War with a massive build-up of American military forces including proposed deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known the world over as ‘Star Wars.’ The rhetoric also became increasingly confrontational. In 1982 whilst addressing the House of Commons, President Reagan said “the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the Ash Heap of history.” His staunch ally Margaret Thatcher, buoyed by success in the Falklands War warned that the west must face up to a very real threat; she was convinced the Soviets “were bent on world dominance.” On 8th March 1983, Reagan gave his ‘Evil Empire’ speech in which he urged NATO to deploy nuclear missiles to Western Europe. On 1st September 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 as it strayed over Soviet airspace resulting in the loss of 269 lives.
The leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, spent most of his 15 months tenure, in and out of hospital. Both he and his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, who had died in November 1982, seemed convinced that NATO was preparing a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Reagan’s plans for SDI, the imminent deployment of American nuclear missiles (Pershing II and Cruise) to Western Europe, the continued bellicose language from both Reagan and Thatcher, and years of misinterpretation of intelligence collated by the KGB fed the building paranoia in Moscow. The Soviets also had a problem with their own unreliable detection and early warning measures. On 26th September 1983, their satellite based system malfunctioned and incorrectly alerted the Soviets that the USA had launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Only the cool head of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov prevented the Kremlin ordering a massive retaliatory strike against the phantom warnings.
Exercise Able Archer was a NATO Command Post Exercise (CPX) that practiced the release of Nuclear weapons. It had been planned well in advance and ran between 2nd – 12th November 1983. Against the backdrop of recent events and heightened tensions it could not have come at a worse time. In Moscow there were members of the politburo who genuinely thought NATO was preparing a full scale nuclear attack using the war games as cover.
Two further events before the start of Able Archer would increase Soviet suspicions further. Security surrounding all American installations across the world was stepped up after the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut on 23rd October. Just two days later the Soviets started to see an increase in communications between London and Washington D.C. They saw this as another sign when in fact it was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calling the US President to complain in the strongest possible terms regarding the US invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth member.
As Exercise Able Archer’s scripted scenario played out the Soviet Union took defensive measures moving troops towards the west. It’s ships and submarines sailed from Baltic ports and bombers were placed on the highest readiness. As the exercise moved towards its conclusion, a simulated nuclear response from NATO forces, the Kremlin prepared a real response targeting individual cities and military targets throughout the western hemisphere. Soviet listening posts in the east monitored all radio traffic but despite each transmission starting with the words “Exercise Exercise Exercise,” Soviet leadership was convinced it was about to be attacked. As the final act of Able Archer was taking place, a simulated NATO launch of 350 nuclear missiles, the Soviet Union was poised and ready to retaliate for real. Once the imaginary missiles struck their targets and ‘Endex’ was declared all radio traffic ceased. An accidental nuclear war was only prevented by spies who managed to convince their leadership that the other side had no intentions of starting a real nuclear war.
When word got out just how close the world had come to nuclear Armageddon, on both sides of the Atlantic came a new realisation that they needed to dial back the rhetoric. When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was briefed she was so concerned she immediately began a campaign lobbying Washington D.C. to ensure it could never happen again. President Reagan had intentionally engaged the Soviet Union in an arms race as a deliberate attempt to bankrupt the country. It was working but almost came at a terrible price, one even he was not willing to pay. As the full implications of his aggressive anti-Soviet stance and the Kremlin’s deep paranoia were revealed he was genuinely shocked and became very reflective.
“Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did…I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them…I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike.”
Just days later President Reagan watched a private screening of the ABC television film, The Day After. The film depicts a fictional conflict between NATO and Soviet forces that escalates into a full-scale nuclear war. Not only did the film have a profound effect on the American people, it deeply moved the American President. He thought it was extremely effective and left him “greatly depressed.” The combined effect of seeing the film knowing how close the world had recently come to disaster, changed his views on nuclear war. From early 1984 Ronald Reagan also adopted a new approach towards the Soviet Union.
“I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us.”
Although it would take five years, it was this sea-change in policy that would help bring an end to the Cold War.
Since the end of the Cold War, several ex-Warsaw Pact countries have either joined NATO or have been courted by the west. As Russia has once again become ‘a player’ on the world stage, signs of mistrust and paranoia are there again. Since the end of the Cold War NATO has pushed its influence into eastern Europe, deploying American missile defence systems along with NATO troops in to these former Warsaw Pact countries. When you look at a map of where troops are now deployed and you understand Russia's history you can also start to understand Russian fears.
In the west, missile defence systems are not seen as an offensive weapon. As reported by the Washington Post today, "it is standing US policy not to deploy a defensive system that could neutralize a Russian retaliatory response to a US nuclear attack." But in Russia, Putin and previous leaders have always interpreted any deployment in Europe very differently. Anti-ballistic missile weapons, and the NATO troop build-up in eastern Europe (however small), are being viewed not only as a treaty violation but also as a direct threat. NATO might see their actions since the end of the Cold War as a defensive measure against any further Russian involvement in the Ukraine. But any counter of Russian missiles hindering their capability to strike back if attacked, plays on their historical fears of western aggression. All they see is the real threat of an American led NATO attack that could leave Russia unable to respond.