The Able Archers
Colonel Ivan Levchenko, a Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) officer, ruminates on the seemingly inexorable march to nuclear war.
At this late date, it’s doubtful the Americans will change their plans for Able Archer 83, including the participation of the president and the British prime minister. Still, while there is a chance of defusing the situation, I must take it. My larger concern lies within the Kremlin. The leadership’s paranoia is tuned to a fever pitch. The preparations that are no doubt underway for nuclear war will be very difficult to walk back. Just think of the momentum that built toward war across all of Europe in August of 1914. None of those leaders really wanted a major war—they didn’t even think one was possible—but once the machinery of mobilization started, they were powerless to reverse the inertia.
Captain Kevin Cattani, a US Air Force Intelligence officer, spars with the four-star admiral commanding the US Pacific Fleet.
The Pacific Fleet chief is unmoved. He tells me in a condescending tone, “Captain, do you think you understand the Russians? Do you? The Soviets cannot be trusted to tell the truth. Hell, Stalin signed an alliance with Hitler, and then fought the biggest war in the history of the world against him. And, Stalin killed how many of his own citizens? These are evil people with a failing form of government. They lie. I don’t believe anything that they say—or care what they think. Maybe they replaced officers in the Far East because they were drunks or incompetent and they couldn’t track the Pacific Fleet during our fleet exercise. Maybe they are reacting so often because they need the training. You don’t know why they are reacting the way they are, and you cannot prove anything, so it doesn’t matter what you think.”
Crowe motions for me to respond. General Flannery looks at the floor, taking an unusual interest in the pattern of the carpet.
I gather myself and say. “Admiral, with respect, the Soviets think this happened and I believe it does matter what they think, because what they think is driving them to change their operations in ways that are potentially dangerous to our reconnaissance aircrews. And, sir, you are correct—it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is what the Soviets think, and they clearly believe that there was an overflight and their entire air defense network in the Far East has been on high alert ever since, potentially endangering the lives of our reconnaissance crews, and possibly commercial airliners.” My upper body is shaking when I finish. I wonder if I’ve gone too far with the admiral.