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Cold War's riskiest moment


Some think the fall of 1983 was the closest the Soviets and the U.S. came to nuclear war


"The danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, `the Americans may attack, so we better attack first,' " says Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counterintelligence, who lives outside Washington. While the KGB and military had institutional interests in exaggerating the risk of attack, Andropov's distrust of American leaders was profound, says Kalugin, who knew him well.

But American officials tended to interpret shrill protests from Andropov and his colleagues as empty propaganda. "The Reagan administration was committed to believing its own rhetoric - that SDI didn't threaten the Soviet Union and that the Pershings were not a first-strike weapon," Prados says.

Then came a series of potential sparks. On Sept. 1, 1983, a Soviet fighter shot down a South Korean airliner that had strayed into Soviet airspace, killing the 269 people aboard and prompting angry accusations from both sides.

Next, on Sept. 26, a Soviet satellite misinterpreted sunlight glinting off clouds above a U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile site in Montana as the launch of five ICBMs.

Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer overseeing the warning system, kept his cool, reasoning that a U.S. first strike would involve hundreds of missiles, not just five. Instead of sounding the alarm, Petrov checked ground radar and other data, and decided that the satellite's alert was false.

Petrov's health was broken by the stress of the incident and its aftermath, and he soon retired from the military. When his actions that day were revealed by a Russian magazine in 1998, reporters found him infirm and surviving on a tiny pension outside Moscow.

Petrov's unsung heroism did not end the danger. A major U.S.-NATO military exercise called Able Archer was planned for November 1983. With emotions still running high on both sides, some Soviet officials feared that the exercise might be a cover for the long-feared nuclear attack.

But by then, Gordievsky had begun to feed to skeptical contacts in British intelligence documents from Operation RYAN showing that Soviet leaders' war fears were genuine.

"There was incredulity at first. The British couldn't believe the Soviet leaders could think like this," recalls Gordievsky. "The Americans were even more disbelieving."

Nonetheless, in part because Gordievsky's warnings were being passed on by British intelligence, the United States scaled back Able Archer, which initially foresaw a role-playing part for Reagan. Tensions gradually eased, though the CIA's Fischer has found the war scare had a second phase in East Germany as late as 1985-1986. By then, Mikhail S. Gorbachev had come to power, quashed the first-strike fears and moved boldly to negotiate an end to the Cold War.

Gordievsky, 64, escaped Russia in 1985 but was sentenced to death in absentia for treason, a penalty never canceled by post-Soviet Russian governments. He says he considers Reagan's defense buildup "brilliant" because it persuaded the Soviet leadership that they could no longer compete and sped the end of the Cold War.

But the strategy was also extremely risky, he says.

"If the Soviet Union had overreacted, it could have gone very badly," he says, adding in a mild understatement: "If war had come, Soviet missiles would have destroyed Britain entirely, at least half of Germany and France and America would have lost maybe 30 percent of its cities and infrastructure."

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