Newly Translated Documents From The ’80s Reveal The Peak Of The Soviet Union’s Nuclear Fears

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A stockpile of Soviet documents recently translated for the Wilson Center and dating from the ’80s reveal new details about the Soviet Union’s fear of possible nuclear conflict during the closing years of the Cold War.

The documents offer insights into Project RYaN, an early-warning system with 300 dedicated KGB employees who monitored the potential for an “imperialist surprise nuclear missile attack” from NATO.

At a major KGB conference in Moscow in 1981, the agency’s chairman, Yuri Andropov, unveiled Project RYaN (Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie, or “nuclear weapon attack”) as a necessity in the face of a US rival that the Kremlin believed was “actively preparing for nuclear war.”

One translated KGB document lists some of the 292 indicators that might signal an impending attack.

Possible signs of a coming nuclear blitz could be as nuanced as increased production of vaccines and pharmaceuticals beyond “actual needs of the current epidemiological situation,” or as seemingly ominous as “significant deviations in travel by diplomats and other privileged persons from NATO states.”

Overall, the list of indicators is meant to keep a pulse on “all areas of society, primarily in political decision-making centres, the armed forces, the civil defence, the intelligence services, and the economy.”

The documents also reveal cooperation between the Soviet KGB and the Stasi — its notorious Eastern German equivalent — in their efforts to monitor signs of an attack.

Germany didn’t contribute to Project RYaN until 1985, but as Nate Jones writes for the Wilson Center, the documents “acknowledge that the Stasi was the KGB’s primary source of foreign intelligence,” thanks to its insight into West Germany’s tank production and other defence technology, as well as its eye on the heavy US military presence in the western Europe.

German Tank Reforger Military Exercise 1983
West German soldiers aboard a camouflaged Leopard I battle tank during Exercise Reforger, on Sept. 28, 1983. Wikimedia Commons

A 1986 letter from KGB Chairman Victor Chebrikov to his Stasi counterpart recognises the “joint efforts on timely recognition of the danger of a sudden attack on the states of the socialist community.”

The translated letters are also an interesting glimpse into the now-antiquated niceties of official Soviet communication: they open with salutations like “Dear Comrade Mielke!,” and close with florid well-wishing and “communist greetings.”

Some letters also betray anxiety that false indicators under Project RYaN might lead the Eastern Bloc to jump the gun and take military action. One document from 1984 states that “constant and ongoing assessments have to be made whether certain developments actually constitute a crisis or not.”

The documents give a sense that confidence in the project was shaky at best, and Project RYaN may have generated more fears than assurances — this in the context of a world stage ripe with potential for unintended nuclear conflict. It might have also fed into the Soviet paranoia that resulted in a notorious 1983 war scare and led some in the Soviet hierarchy to wrongly believe that the US was considering a nuclear first-strike against Europe’s already-fraying socialist bloc.