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"Is the Possibility of a Third World War Real?"  Researching Nuclear Ukraine in the KGB Archive

NPIHP Working Paper #13

"Is the Possibility of a Third World War Real?" Researching Nuclear Ukraine in the KGB Archive

Nate Jones

March 2019


Abstract: The archive of the Ukrainian KGB is open and full of former Soviet nuclear secrets.  In this article, Nate Jones presents new evidence drawn from KGB documents and other eastern and western sources to examine Ukrainian and Soviet nuclear history. These new Soviet intelligence documents show the inefficiency of the early Soviet ICBM program; details of the domestic and international intelligence operations of the KGB; descriptions of Soviet decision-making and American manipulation of the KAL 007 civilian aircraft shoot down; documentation of Yuri Andropov’s secret announcement of the creation of Operation RYaN, a nuclear intelligence gathering operation based on the theory of preemption; nuclear warning signs known by the KGB preceding the Chernobyl disaster; and provide information for the reevaluation of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and denuclearization of Ukraine in light of Russia’s 2014 invasion.  

The only declassified data on US nuclear targeting during the Cold War shows that in 1956 the United States had identified 101 potential sites throughout the territory of Ukraine to strike during a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.[1]  Despite the irrationality of nuclear war, such a focus upon Ukraine by American’s nuclear planners was, in a narrow sense, rational.

Kharkiv’s Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology was the preeminent facility for Soviet nuclear research before the Second World War.  In 1932, the Institute was the first to reproduce the results of the British experiment which demonstrated the phenomenon of splitting a lithium nucleus by bombarding it with fast protons.  Ukrainian physicists played key roles in early Soviet uranium enrichment.  Igor Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet atomic project, specifically requested and relied upon the expertise of at least one Ukrainian physicist.[2]  In fact, there is evidence that the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) used to enrich the fissile material for the first Soviet atomic bomb may have been produced by the Prydniprovsky Chemical Plant in Dniprodzerzhynsk, Ukraine.[3]  Although Kharkiv’s nuclear physics program was decimated by Stalin’s purges and the Second World War, Ukraine continued to be key to the Soviet nuclear weapons program throughout the Cold War.[4]  Ukrainian mines produced uranium and Ukrainian plants produced the heavy water used to manufacture Soviet nuclear warheads.[5]

Dnipropetrovsk’s 1000-acre Yuzhnyi Machine-Building Plant (YUZHMASH) produced at least fourteen of the most fearsome ballistic missiles in the Soviet arsenal ranging from the German V2 clone SS-1 Scunner to the SS-18 Satan and the SS-26 Iskander.[6]  At the Cold War’s end, Ukraine stationed 130 six-warheaded SS-19 ICBMs, 46 10-warheaded SS-24s, and 44 nuclear-cable Bear and Blackjack bombers.  By 1991, there were an estimated 1,240 strategic nuclear warheads and 1,081 nuclear cruise missiles on Ukrainian soil which would be used to destroy the West in the event of a nuclear war.[7]

The danger of nuclear war was best exemplified in one key question quoted in a newly unearthed 1982 KGB report: “Is the possibility of a third world war real? Will the nuclear conflict between the US and the USSR be prevented? Is their collision inevitable?”[8]***

This paper will use newly available documents from the Ukrainian KGB archive, officially known as the State Archives Department of the Security Service of Ukraine (GDA SBU), as well as recent scholarship on Ukrainian nuclear history to show that, while nuclear war was not “inevitable,” the risk faced by nuclear Ukraine was high—and tragic.  This paper will:

  • introduce new evidence on the inefficiency of the early Soviet ICBM program;
  • provide operational details of the domestic and international actions of the KGB;
  • describe Soviet decision-making and American manipulation of the KAL 007 shoot down;
  • document Yuri Andropov’s secret announcement of the creation of Operation RYaN, a nuclear intelligence gathering operation based on the theory of preemption;
  • show the warning signs known by the KGB preceding the Chernobyl disaster;
  • and will reevaluate the dissolution of the Soviet Union and denuclearization of Ukraine in light of  Russia’s 2014 invasion. 

Today, the Soviet nuclear archipelago has largely been removed from Ukraine.  Fortunately for historians, many of its remaining vestiges are now more accessible than perhaps anywhere else in the world.  As a Nuclear Proliferation International History Research Fellow at the Odessa Center for Nonproliferation, I was able to visit the ICBM base at Pervomaisk, Ukraine where tourists can peer into its bunkers and gaze at decommissioned SS-19 and SS-24 missiles which were once ready to be launched with minutes notice.  I was even able to take the rickety Soviet elevator 12 stories underground, past the missileers’ barracks—complete with a military issue samovar—into the missile control room.  There myself and my “second” simulated a verification of launch procedure, acquired our nuclear keys, glanced nervously at each other, counted down to zero, turned the keys and ignited our SS-24 rocket.  Thankfully, the 176 missiles once on Ukrainian territory could no longer be used to destroy the world.

The Ukrainian archives, filled with former Soviet secrets, are also now largely open.  The natural place to begin for scholars researching early Soviet nuclear development is the Kharkiv State Archive which contains records from the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology.[9]

The bulk of files relating to Ukraine’s nuclear history, however, are found in Kiev.  The Central Executive Archive of Ukraine (literally translated as “Central State Archive of the Supreme Organs and Administrations of Ukraine”), referred to by researchers as “TsDAVO,” houses the majority of Ukraine’s archival records. Though it is no doubt wise to plan ahead, researchers can access the archive without an appointment simply by showing a passport. Additionally, a large quantity of TsDAVO’s finding aids are available online and are easily searchable (in Ukrainian).[10] Included in the extremely large collections are the files of the Socialist Republic of Ukraine’s Council of Ministers and corpuses from former presidents of Ukraine, Kuchma and Kravchuk.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs also provide researchers access to their historic (generally pre-1991) documents. These institutions are bureaucratically trickier to get into and access must be arranged in advance, but researchers, including Mariana Budjeryn and Polina Sinovets, have shown that it is certainly possible and that the documentary fruits are worth pursuing.[11]

But the crown jewel of the Ukrainian Archives, at least to this researcher, is the Archive of the Security Services of Ukraine, or simply the KGB Archive. An official invitation must be obtained in order to achieve access to the KGB Archive, but this can be obtained fairly easily by contacting the email address listed on the archive’s website.[12] Under the leadership of the archive’s director, Andriy Kohut, the Ukrainian security service demonstrates a commitment to openness that the archives of other formerly communist countries would be wise to follow.  Historical openness ensures that the dangers of both nuclear weapons development and totalitarianism can be properly studied and documented.[13]

Once inside, researchers have the incredible opportunity to gain an inside view of how the Soviet organs of state operated, both domestically and internationally. Internal security records from Ukraine’s incorporation into the Soviet Union until its collapse are preserved. One typical example of a KGB record is a wary and meticulous reporting of the discovery that youths in Kiev were beginning to enjoy a new type of music named “punk rock.”[14] Many of these millions of pages of domestic surveillance files, however, are much more heartbreaking. They include the investigations, arrests, deportations, and executions of millions of Ukrainians in the Soviet Union.

Though not as complete as its collection of files on Soviet citizens living in Ukraine, and certainly less comprehensive than the KGB’s central files controlled in Moscow, the Ukrainian KGB Archive nonetheless presents researchers with an unprecedented window into the KGB and the Soviet Union’s international security operations, foreign policy objectives, and nuclear history.[15]  As this article will discuss, fonds 9 (Orders of the KGB), 13 (KGB publications), and 16 (Memoranda between the KGB and Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) provide a chronicled record of Moscow’s security decisions encompassing Soviet and Ukrainian nuclear history.[16]  In addition to the translations of key documents at the end of this article, all cited documents from the KGB Archive are available to researchers at the National Security Archive. 


Despite Khrushchev’s 1960 pronouncement at the United Nations that in the USSR “rockets [were] coming off the assembly line like sausages from an automatic machine”[17] and Kennedy’s dubious electoral claim that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in a “Missile Gap,” documents held in the Ukrainian KGB Archive show in detail that the early Soviet missile program was fraught, teetering, and not infrequently producing missiles that would not hit their targets.[18]

A February 1962 document sent from the Ukrainian KGB to the Ukrainian Central Committee stated that since 1961, at least three rockets produced in Ukraine had failed readiness tests and contained “serious shortcomings in combat readiness.”  According to the report, the phases of one of the missiles “did not properly synchronize.”  Two others reportedly passed their tests, but the KGB found out through a source that they had not been properly tested and, contrary to instructions, “were not equipped with fuel or warheads.”  The KGB concluded that the reported failures attested “to the unpreparedness of these [weapons] for combat use.”[19]

Thanks to U2 overflights, Corona satellite imagery, and information provided to the CIA by the Soviet Military Intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky, the United States knew by mid-1961 that Khrushchev and the Soviets had been bluffing about their missile quantities and capabilities.  By mid-1961, the Soviets in all likelihood had no more than 50 ICBM launchers deployed, not the 100 plus previously stated in US intelligence estimates.  The United States had 75.  There was no “Missile Gap.”[20]

Documents in the KGB Archive now corroborate that the Soviet Union was aware and sensitive to the fact that the US was able to uncover previously hidden elements of the Soviet nuclear industry.  In June 1962, the KGB sent a memorandum to each of its supervisors in Ukraine.  It stated that, “the construction of regime facilities, transportation, and unloading of special equipment occurred without observing the appropriate camouflage and camouflage measures [,]”and that cover stories of these facilities and equipment were “not skillfully implemented, and rarely used,” to conceal the activities of the missile program.  The secrecy of these facilities and their products was “completely inadequate” and allowed for “favorable conditions to be created for the enemy to acquire information about the regime’s military facilities and other state secrets.”[21]


The KGB Archive gives an expansive view into the agency’s domestic and foreign intelligence operations.  Summarized here is just a sampling from the extensive quantity of previously secret revelations that I came across in the Archive.  The Ukrainian KGB’s most expansive intelligence efforts may have been the monitoring of activities of Ukrainian exile groups, including the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.  The KGB was quick to report when a US cabinet member, congressperson, or Canadian parliamentarian met or made complimentary comments to the groups chartered in the West.  The KGB also closely monitored the journeys and activities of its leaders.  The KGB constantly feared that supporters of the World War Two era nationalist Stepan Bandara would sabotage the Soviet system—especially in Eastern Ukraine.  My review of the documents, however, leads me to believe that while there may have been sentiment for the previous era of Ukrainian independence, there was little chance of the nationalists actually threatening the Soviet state.  The Soviets in Ukraine had thoroughly decimated them—at least within Ukraine—after the Second World War.[22]

As known, the KGB also closely monitored “foreigners from capitalist and emerging countries.”  In the segment of the Archive that I focused on (Fond 16 during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s), the records were generally organized as chronological, bi-weekly reports summarizing the security situation in Ukraine and abroad. For example, one representative from July 1982 reported the exact figure of 20,139 “foreigners” present throughout Ukraine and provided a breakdown of how many were diplomats, students, tourists, members of delegations, and others.[23]  These bi-weekly reports are interspersed with other documents, including statistical summaries of the KGB’s work as well as “breaking” intelligence reports and instructions. [24]

One representative report showing how omniscient—if out of touch—the Soviet security apparatus was in Ukraine, documents the KGB’s concern over a group of seven youths with “a white cloth with a penciled inscription of the word ‘Punk’ in Latin characters.”  This display led to an initial investigation and report that found that the youth had a passion for punk music and periodically gathered in the city Park Kulturi or—ironically as it now reads—at a disco at the Palace of Culture of the Felix Dzerzhinsky metallurgy factory.  The KGB reported that the “punks” claimed not to know of “the ideologically harmful direction of punk movement in the West.” Confirming that social class structures did in fact exist in the USSR, the KGB reported that due to their “areas of residence and places of study” they were well-respected citizens.  Nevertheless, the KGB reported that it would endeavor to assign an experienced KGB officer to the site, suppress further antisocial activities by “punks,” and “establish the actual motives of this grouping and its possible ‘inspirators.’”[25]

Another April 1982 report, titled “On the arrest of an anti-Soviet person,” clearly demonstrates the totalitarian nature of the KGB’s mission.  The report documents that a Soviet pensioner, former engineer and party member, F. F. Andenko, was arrested for writing “poetry of anti-Soviet character,” and a 2,000 page treatise “which attempted to substantiate the ‘need’ to change the current state of our country” and advocated for the creation of a “new party.”  The investigation showed the “criminal activities of his close acquaintance” V.S. Volkov, who had worked with Andenko since 1964 to “write, store, and distribute materials of hostile content, including the evil libel ‘Political Diary.’”  According to the report, the KGB arrested Volkov, who then testified against Andenko.  The report concludes: “the investigation continues.”  The fates of Andenko and Volkov are unknown.[26]

A previously secret set of documents sent to the Soviet Politburo shows that the “preventative” activities of the KGB were substantially increased, beginning in 1983 with the goal of “strengthening law and order and increasing ideological vigilance of soviet people.”  In practice, this meant the wide circulation of a classified order entitled “Regarding Measures To Improve the Preventative Work Conducted By The State Security Services” to all “first secretaries of the Communist Party Committees in all soviet republics, to the party offices in territories and regions, to heads and members of military councils, military commands, military districts, air defense districts, fleets, individual armies, and equivalents, [and offices and directorates of the Ministry of Internal Affairs]” instructing them to ramp up their efforts.  These nationwide “preventative measures” included: increased surveillance on and reporting of Soviet citizens, the usage of mass media to promote a pro-Soviet viewpoint, the development by the KGB’s F.E. Dzerzhinsky Higher School of a study on “the theory of preventative work,” and the “shield[ing] of the military from subversive activities of the enemy.”  The order seemed to tacitly acknowledge that the Soviet Union was losing “the culture war,” stating “We ought to patiently and in a targeted fashion influence those among the artistic intelligentsia and young people, who due to their political immaturity and misconceptions and without any hostile intent, spread views foreign to soviet society.”[27]

In a secret speech to intelligence officers in 1981, Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB declared: “Enemy agents, Radzhabov, Kazachkov, Filatov, Nilov, Bumeister, Petrov, Ogorodnik, Kryuchkov, Vagin, Shchedrov and others, have been exposed and neutralized.  …Experience shows that along with already known forms of espionage, the enemy is trying to utilize more sophisticated means of gathering intelligence and performing other surveillance and subversive activities.”[28]  The Soviet Union’s struggles against western intelligence are also documented in the KGB Archive.  A February 1983 document chronicles how the KGB intercepted two letters addressed to the US embassy in Moscow written by a Ukrainian typist at the headquarters of the 8th Air Defense Army, Klavdia Alekandrovna Malinovskaya.  In the letters, she provided typewritten documents about the activities of Soviet air defense forces and offered to “tell the right people” more information.  According to the KGB report, she also removed other secret material from Air Defense headquarters.  “To prevent leakage of military information to the enemy,” she was arrested and prosecuted in early 1983.[29]

Another May 1983 document entitled, “On the arrest of C. V. Krichenko, who established a criminal relationship with US intelligence,” documents how the KGB found a hidden communications kit given to a Soviet informant by the CIA in November 1982.  Inside the kit were instructions on how to communicate with the CIA via encrypted communications. A week later, the KGB intercepted an encrypted letter which included the location of a secret drop location used in Moscow.  The KGB watched this location and was able to arrest the “probable agent,” Sergei Vladimirovich Krichenko, a once well-pedigreed engineering student who had knowledge of the Soviet anti-ballistic missile program.  After his arrest and interrogation by the KGB, Kirichenko revealed the nature of his contacts with the CIA.  The KGB concluded that Kirichenko collaborated with the CIA due to his “moral decomposition” and “worship of the Western way of life.”[30]

The most impressive piece of counterintelligence I came across in the archive was a KGB summary of the CIA’s attempts to co-opt a Soviet UN diplomat named Anatoli Dmitrievich Plyushko.  According to the KGB account, the CIA began targeting him during his tour in the United States from 1973 to 1979.  After his return to the USSR, “influential foreigners, including CIA officials, repeatedly tried to contact him.”  After Plyushko rebuffed these contacts, the CIA, according to the KGB, “began making attempts to compromise him.”  These included revealing Plyushko’s contacts with foreigners, and depositing and then revealing that he had received a $7,900 deposit into a Western bank, which was “strictly prohibited” by Soviet law.  While the document reads as ambivalent towards Plyushko’s complicity or guilt, it does conclude that a planned trip by Plyushko to the 1983 UN General Assembly “seems impractical.”[31]

The Archive also includes information of the KGB’s foreign assets, including those who helped improve the USSR’s nuclear productions.  One July 1982 document reports on the work of the Ukrainian KGB on behalf of an asset codenamed “Michael” who was the vice president of the American manufacturing firm Consark Corporation.  As recounted in the document—and later by the American press—a representative from Consark, a New Jersey furnace company, met with Soviet representatives about selling the Soviet Union an advanced type of carbon that was used in its furnaces, but also that could improve the efficacy of the re-entry nose cones of intercontinental ballistic missiles.[32] The KGB reports that this agent provided 70 samples and other technical details of this specialty material.  Then, after the US attempted to block the sale, “Michael” suggested a method to sell it to the Soviet Union anyway, by way of a Scottish subsidiary.  The Soviet Union allocated over five million dollars for the purchase of this carbon fiber technology from “Michael.”  The samples and knowledge he provided had “cross-sectoral importance” according to the KGB and was shared with various Soviet industries, including those manufacturing intercontinental missiles.[33]


The KGB Archive also contains new evidence illuminating the creation of Operation RYaN (Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie or “nuclear missile attack”) and further confirms that the War Scare of 1983 was, as Mikhail Gorbachev described it, “as explosive and, hence, more difficult and unfavorable” than perhaps any time since the Second World War.[34]

In December of 1983 Reagan’s Soviet expert, Jack Matlock, sent National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane a memorandum warning that since mid-1983, a "fear of war seemed to affect the elite as well as the man on the street." He attached a copy of a cable describing information from "an American academic with excellent entrée to the Soviet political elite." The academic warned of "growing paranoia among Soviet officials and sees them literally obsessed by fear of war," and an expanding "emotionality and even irrationality" among the elite. Matlock’s source warned of "a high degree of paranoia among Soviet officials … not unlike the atmosphere of thirty years ago."[35]

This fear of war from the Soviet elite as well as from “the man on the street” is documented in the KGB’s records from this period.   In November 1982 Andropov was elected the new General Secretary at a special Central Committee plenum.  At the meeting, he declared, “We know well…that peace with the imperialists is not for the asking.  It can be safeguarded only by relying on the invincible might of the Soviet Armed Forces.”[36] As standard procedure, the KGB in Ukraine collected and reported commentary from Soviet citizens back to the party leadership in a classified report.  One representative quotation came from a mine worker form the Donetsk region who applauded the “timeliness and importance of the warnings made by Comrade Andropov to the United States and the NATO block that it leads about their unprecedented military preparations, the production of new types of nuclear missile weapons and the aggravation of the international situation to extremely dangerous limits.”[37]

A year later, relations between the superpowers further diminished.  On September 1, 1983, the Soviet Union shot down civilian airliner Korean Air 007, believing it to be a US spy plane, killing all 269 people on board.  After a bumbled Soviet response to the catastrophe, President Reagan delivered a vehement televised address in which he played selectively-declassified signal intercepts of Soviet pilots and accused the Soviets of “committing an act of barbarism” and a “crime against humanity.” Newly declassified evidence does not exonerate the Soviets for this unnecessary loss of civilian life, but it does confirm that the Soviet military and Soviet intelligence genuinely believed that the plane was a spy plane.  The Reagan administration knew that there actually was a second plane, an Cobra Ball aircraft, in the near vicinity and on a parallel route of KAL-007 that was monitoring a pending SSX-24 missile test. It did not reveal this to the American public at the time, due to its eagerness to “pounce on [it] and squeeze [it] dry of propaganda value.”  According to a declassified NSA history, there was “no question” Soviet ground controllers thought they were tracking a second US reconnaissance aircraft. “Given the paranoia that had existed since April [the U.S. had flown simulated bombing runs that had penetrated deeply into Soviet territory], it was unthinkable that such a penetration could be permitted without action.”  We now know, thanks to this declassification that, “It was the Reagan people who insisted that the Soviets could not have mistaken a 747 for a 707.  It was their value judgment.  It was wrong, but not so wide of the mark that one can impute anything more sinister than righteous wrath.  It was the height of the Second Cold War.”[38]

On September 28, as the tensions worsened, Andropov issued a key formal statement which untruthfully blamed the United States for a “sophisticated provocation organized by the US special services, using a South Korean airplane” as “extreme adventurism in policy.”  Andropov’s statement went on to distill the Soviet Union’s view of the present state of confrontation with the United States: that the current US “militarist course [] represents a serious threat to peace;” that “[i]f anyone had any illusions about the possibility of an evolution for the better in the policy of the present American administration, recent events have dispelled them once and for all” and that in the nuclear era, “transferring the confrontation of ideas into a military confrontation would cost all mankind too dearly.”[39]

Again, the Ukrainian KGB wrote a secret report summarizing public reaction.  The consensus of citizens in Ukraine, according to the KGB, was that they hoped to “curb the arms race and preserve peace” and “prevent further slipping towards nuclear war.”  Some citizens “compared the current situation with the 1939-1941 period and make conclusions that both countries are currently on the brink or war”  Others, including an engineer at the Kiev Institute of Physics and a middle school teacher were wary that “a new round of the nuclear arms race carried out by the United States and its NATO partners will force the Soviet government to increase spending on strengthening its own defense, which will adversely affect the material situation of the workers.”[40]


At the same time that the KAL tragedy marked the nadir of US-Soviet relations, and the fear of war contaminated “the man on the street,” Soviet elites, including its leaders and members of its intelligence services were also fearful of and preparing for nuclear war.  Documents from the KGB Archive provide new insight into the origins—and corroborate key aspects of previously murky accounts—of Operation RYaN, or “nuclear missile attack.”  In 1979, the Institute for Intelligence Problems, coordinated by the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, was tasked to work on “the development of new intelligence concepts” that could provide preliminary warning of Western preparations for a first strike. 

At a March 25, 1981, presentation to the KGB members, Yuri Andropov explained how the recently-concluded 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would affect the work of “we the chekists” and introduced the concept of Operation RYaN.  After summarizing the domestic and foreign policy positions of the USSR, he then announced a startling new intelligence initiative: “not to miss the military preparations of the enemy…its preparations for a nuclear strike, and not to miss the real risk of the outbreak of war.”

The striking passage that Andropov delivered at the secret meeting reads:

“But I believe never before, starting from the Great Patriotic War and the ‘cold war’ years, [that the exacerbation of the international situation] hasn’t been as acutely apparent as it is now. 

The Report [to the 26th Congress] states that the imperialists are waging an arms race on an unprecedented scale, and are expediting the preparations for war. Deep and detailed intelligence operations which the US and their NATO partners are conducting against the USSR and its allies, are an integral part of this.

As you know, one of the crucial elements of a nuclear strategy is to strike in such a way that one strike disables as many vital installations of the enemy as possible. And therefore the one who better knows the objectives, the intent and the whole nature of the military and political preparations of the other side, will gain the advantage long before the missiles hit the target. In this connection, long before the military confrontation comes around, a confrontation of the intelligence services springs to life. Our objective is to win it.

A key role in reaching this objective belongs to the foreign intelligence service of the KGB of the USSR. Our intelligence service has a lot of experience, draws upon glorious traditions, has at its disposal loyal, well-trained personnel, and is armed with up-to-date specialty equipment. It bravely engages the enemy.

But today we have to think about how to further increase the efficiency of the intelligence service in the face of new, more complex tasks. In short, the intelligence service needs to learn to act in a more pointed, more accurate, faster way. Its objective is not to miss the military preparations of the enemy, and of the most important enemy in the first place, its preparations for a nuclear strike, and not to miss the real risk of the outbreak of war.

Not to miss means to know the details and particulars which comprise these preparations, to be able to visualize the whole picture…”[41]

Two months later, at a May 25, 1981 speech to KGB leadership and officers, Andropov further described the impetus of Operation RYaN:

The main objective of our intelligence service is not to miss the military preparations of the enemy, its preparations for a nuclear strike, and not to miss the real risk of the outbreak of war.                             

The intelligence service cannot limit itself to reflecting the picture of military preparations of the enemy in general. It has to provide us concrete information about all important details, which are the only way to build a comprehensive picture of the enemy’s real actions.

We have to look at the issue of analytical work of the intelligence services from a new angle. The First Main Directorate receives an enormous amount of information. The flow of information of little importance has to be minimized to make sure that the multitude of materials containing information “about everything” does not obscure issues of primary importance. We have to direct the intelligence services towards mining specifically the type of information which at that particular moment is the most pertinent.

And one more thing. The information has to be accurate, reliable and timely. If these requirements are not adhered to, this lowers the quality of intelligence work.”[42]

Eventually, Operation RYaN grew to include 292 indicators reported by Soviet and Eastern Bloc intelligence services abroad.  Within the KGB, 300 positions were created so that RYaN operatives could implement the real-time “transmission and evaluation” of reported indicators showing the likelihood of a Western first strike, including the creation of a primitive computer system with the goal of using the data to predict the risk of a preemptive western first strike.[43]

By February 1983, KGB agents abroad received a top secret message from KGB headquarters entitled, “Permanent operational assignment to uncover NATO preparations for a nuclear missile attack on the USSR,” with enclosed instructions on how to report on indicators pointing toward a nuclear sneak attack.  “The objective of the assignment is to see that the Residency works systematically to uncover any plans in preparation by the main adversary [USA] for RYaN and to organize continual watch to be kept for indications of a decision being taken to use nuclear weapons against the USSR or immediate preparations being made for a nuclear missile attack.”  Attached to the telegram was a list of seven “immediate” and thirteen “prospective” tasks for the agents to complete and report. These included: the collection of data on potential places of evacuation and shelter, an appraisal of the level of blood held in blood banks, observation of places where nuclear decisions were made and where nuclear weapons were stored, observation of key nuclear decision makers, observation of lines of communication, reconnaissance of the heads of churches and banks, and surveillance of security services and military installations.[44]

As KGB agents abroad began to report RYaN indicators, Andropov remained fixated on a potential western bolt from the blue.  In July of 1981, during a conversation with East German State Security Minister Erich Mielke, he acknowledged that he believed a western attack was at least a possibility: “The US is preparing for war, but it is not willing to start a war. They are not building factories and palaces in order to destroy them. They are striving for military superiority in order to ‘check’ us and then declare ‘checkmate’ against us without starting a war. Maybe I am wrong.”[45]  Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin stated that none of the general secretaries for whom he had served—Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Chernenko nor Gorbachev—“believed an attack could take place unexpectedly at any moment.”  Andropov, he wrote, proved the “probable exception” to this.  “While still head of the KGB, Andropov did believe that the Reagan administration was actively preparing for war.” Dobrynin recalled a “very private” conversation with Andropov in which he cautioned that “Reagan is unpredictable.  You should expect anything from him.”[46]

Andropov also feared nuclear war through miscalculation—a danger which Operation RYaN ironically intensified.  At a January 11, 1983, meeting with Hans-Jochen Vogel, the former mayor of West Berlin, Andropov cautioned, “I don’t want to speak such banal truths, but the fact of the matter is that we have an accumulation of dangerous weapons…When it comes to the accumulation of nuclear weapons, it is even more dangerous.  After all, at the button that activates the nuclear weapon could be a drunken American sergeant or a drug addict.  There were also occasions when the Americans fired rockets at flocks of geese. And if these rockets fell in our territory, it could lead to war.”[47]  In June of 1983, Andropov met US envoy Averell Harriman, a meeting which he described as the “first real meeting between the United States and the Soviet Union since the start of the [Reagan] Administration.” At the meeting, Andropov warned Harriman—who had negotiated with Stalin during the Second World War—of the danger of nuclear war through miscalculation four times. Andropov warned Harriman, “It would seem that awareness of this danger should be precisely the common denominator with which statesmen of both countries would exercise restraint and seek mutual understanding to strengthen confidence, to avoid the irreparable. However, I must say that I do not see it on the part of the current administration and they may be moving toward the dangerous ‘red line.’”[48]

This risk of nuclear “conflict through miscalculation” occurred during Able Archer 83, a realistic November 1983 NATO nuclear release exercise which evoked a “unprecedented” Soviet reaction.  According to the account of the US intelligence community, the danger of war through miscalculation receded after young American Lieutenant General, Leonard Perroots, observed the Soviet nuclear forces ratcheting up and made the “fortuitous, if ill-informed” instinctual decision not to act in kind, essentially signaling that Able Archer 83 was indeed an exercise and ending the escalation.[49]

 A previously confidential February 1984 Soviet General Staff Journal Voennaya mysl’ [Military Thought]article analyzing NATO military exercises including Autumn Forge 83 and Able Archer 83 opens with a public warning from Soviet Politburo member and Minister of Defense Dmitry Ustinov given just after the conclusion of Able Archer 83. Ustinov warned that NATO’s military exercises “are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from a real deployment of armed forces for aggression.”  The Voennaya mysl’ article later states that, due to the large scale and realistic nature of NATO’s military exercises in 1983, “it was difficult to catch the difference between working out training questions and actual preparation of large-scale aggression.”[50]


The most tragic aspect of Ukraine’s nuclear history is the world’s worst nuclear accident.  In the early morning of April 26, 1986, engineers conducted an ill-conceived and poorly executed experiment at reactor four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the small city of Pripyat, 104 kilometers north of Kiev.  The objective of the experiment was to test how much energy the reactor could generate as it was powering down.  In theory, this energy could possibly be used—instead of slow-starting backup reactors—to keep the machines that operated the reactor running, in the case of an emergency shutdown.   In practice, the test led to catastrophe.[51]

The primary cause for the Chernobyl disaster was human error.   Before the test began, one of the operators of the test read the logbook and was confused because some of the instructions had been crossed out.  After inquiring what he should do, he was told, “follow the crossed out instructions.”  The test was scheduled to begin on April 25 when the reactor was being shut down for annual maintenance.  By 2:00 PM on April 25, the reactor was reduced to half power (from 3,200 megawatts to 1,600) and the emergency core cooling system was disconnected, ostensibly so that it would not interfere with the test.  But then, the shutdown and test were postponed after grid operators in Kiev instructed that the reactor must remain operating to fulfill high civilian power consumption.  At 11:30 PM the operators lost control of the reactor and the power level of the reactor plummeted below the 700-1,000 megawatts that the test was supposed to be conducted at, dropping to only 30 megawatts.  In an attempt to raise the power, the operator withdrew control rods, but he could not get the power level to rise.  According to its official instructions, the reactor never should have been operated with fewer than the equivalent of 30 of its 211 rods in its core.  But by 1:22 in the morning of April 26, it had just some six to eight rods.  Then the experiment began. 

It lasted just 40 seconds before a chain reaction began and the reactor suffered a “prompt critical excursion,” or, put more bluntly: “a slow nuclear explosion,” which took a second rather than a nanosecond.  The explosion blew the roof off the reactor and spewed radioactive parts, fuel rods, and gasses, into the air.  The explosion immediately caused some thirty fires at the site, including the apparent ignition of the graphite core, which burned for ten days.

The first report on the nuclear disaster entitled “Urgent Report, Accident at Chernobyl Atomic Power Station,” has been published by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.  The document, with Gorbachev’s name handwritten at its top, detailed the damage at Chernobyl, stating that auxiliary machinery, the reactor and its roof “were demolished during the explosion.”  Incredibly, the report also stated that “it is not required to take special measures, including the evacuation of the population of the city.”[52]

This advice could not have been further from the truth.  In the immediate aftermath of Chernobyl, 237 peopled were afflicted by acute radiation sickness and 31—the majority of them fire fighters termed “liquidators”—died within three months.  The World Health Organization reports that the death toll from the accident is still growing: “[a]n increased number of cancer deaths can be expected during the lifetime of persons exposed to radiation from the accident,” with those that were exposed by the most radiation [firefighters] at the highest risk.[53]  Over 900,000 individuals associated with the accident continue to undergo annual medical examinations.[54]  

Newly released documents also show that risk of a disaster at Chernobyl was known ahead of time, that there had been previous accidents at Chernobyl before 1986, and that inadequate leadership was shown by those in charge in Ukraine and Moscow.  According to a February 1979 report sent from Yuri Andropov, then Chairman of the KGB, entitled “Shortcomings in the construction of the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station,” the KGB had learned of improper construction techniques and “deviations from designs” at the Chernobyl plant that “might lead to failures or accidents.”  These errors included improper installation of the roof, damaged waterproofing which could lead “to radioactive contamination of the environment,” cracks in the concrete due to low quality pours, and the “disastrous condition” of the approach route—which would have been used by emergency personnel after the accident.  The KGB memorandum named several of the men who oversaw the construction, but provided no recommendations or plans on how to fix these dangerous design flaws.[55]

A report from the KGB in September 1982 reveals that there was an earlier nuclear accident at Chernobyl, a nuclear fuel spill at Chernobyl power plant’s reactor one.  This spill led to an increase in the radiation levels at the reactor. The initial report claimed that radiation 250 meters from the reactor was at a “permissible rate” and recommended that no actions needed to be taken.[56]  Two months later, however, a more thorough KGB investigation contradicted the initial finding that the area was safe.  It suggested that further study of radiation in the area was needed, but also instructed that this study should be kept secret from the public to prevent “panic rumors” among those that may have unknowingly been affected by the accident.[57]  

In December 1982, Chernobyl’s reactor three was shut down after imprecise manufacturing led to a generator blade snapping and damage to another 20 blades in the reactor.[58]  A month later, in January 1983, Chernobyl’s reactor one had a leak which allowed outside water to enter into the reactor’s control system.[59]  These and other manufacturing errors led to a KGB-orchestrated review of the manufacturing of Soviet reactors which found “certain structural defects and malfunctions.”  The KGB’s investigation of these nuclear defects, however, shows that maintaining production schedule was prioritized much more highly than producing safe nuclear reactors.[60]  Despite these nuclear manufacturing errors being known and reported to the higher levels of Soviet power, there remained a belief that a nuclear catastrophe simply could not occur.  This belief was so steadfast that Soviet nuclear plants, including Chernobyl—unlike western nuclear power plants—did not even have a steel-reinforced concrete containment roof to limit the spread of radiation in the event of an accident.  As David Albright wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Before the accident, Soviet engineers proudly proclaimed that such an accident could never happen.  But the operation of nuclear reactors is very complicated.” On April 26, 1986, assumptions of nuclear safety proved—not for the last time—to be incorrect.[61]

The catastrophe at Chernobyl also had implications for the future of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, and, indeed, the nuclear tragedy contributed to the end of the Cold War.  Sergey Akhromeyev, chief of the General Staff, stated that Chernobyl provided a concrete, tangible example of the danger of nuclear war to the Soviet public: “After Chernobyl, the nuclear threat stopped being an abstract notion for our people.  It became tangible and concrete.  The people began to see all the problems linked with nuclear weapons much differently.”[62]  Chernobyl also sobered Gorbachev.  At a Politburo meeting on May 5, he told Soviet leadership that “we felt what a nuclear war is.” During his television address about the disaster, he told the USSR that Chernobyl demonstrated “what an abyss will open if nuclear war befalls mankind.  For inherent in the nuclear arsenals stockpiled are thousands upon thousands of disasters far more horrible than the Chernobyl one.”  On May 28, he gave a secret speech at the Foreign Ministry in which he instructed diplomats to use all available means to stop the nuclear arms race.[63]   Six months later, Gorbachev met Reagan at Reykjavik.


On December 8, 1987, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, completely eliminating an entire class of destabilizing, potentially decapitating nuclear weapons which were the primary drive behind Operation RYaN and the Able Archer 83 War Scare.[64]  On June 31, 1991, Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which eventually eliminated an estimated 12,000 nuclear warheads (roughly 80 percent of all strategic nuclear warheads in existence). 

On August 19, 1991, a self-proclaimed “State Committee on the State of Emergency” lead by KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov attempted to stage a coup against Gorbachev, isolating him at his dacha at Foros, Ukraine.  After three days of popular struggle, the hardliner coup was thwarted.  Gorbachev returned to Moscow politically destroyed.  By the end of December, the Soviet Union had dissolved into 15 independent countries.  

As the USSR dissolved, US Department of Defense experts anxiously watched its nuclear arsenal.  A recently declassified document entitled, “Control of Soviet Strategic Nuclear Weapons Before, During and After the Coup,” stated that “[d]uring the coup, President Gorbachev’s role in nuclear release authority was apparently revoked [as] coup conspirators removed the suitcase that carries his transmission device.  This would indicate that key members of the emergency committee then running the government held nuclear release authority.”  The DOD recounted how Yeltsin had ultimately retaken control of nuclear release authority and then predicted that “[i]n the reconfigured union, which probably will emerge in the next year, the reconstituted center probably will retain control over nuclear weapons; however, republic leaders will almost certainly demand some role in the nuclear decision-making process.”[65]

Another recently declassified DOD Special Assessment entitled, “USSR: Soviet Nuclear Weapons Outside the Russian Republic,” gamed out possible scenarios for the weapons on the soil of former Soviet republics including Ukraine, but admitted, “conclusive indicators of weapons withdrawals are very difficult to identify… primarily due to Soviet operational security.  Weapons transfers normally occur during hours of darkness or when they are not susceptible to detection… In the past our ability to monitor large scare weapons movements has been largely unsuccessful.  For example, no nuclear warhead transfers were detected from storage sites supporting missiles eliminated under the INF agreement.  Many of these sites appeared operational…but were found to be empty upon onsite inspection.”  The document concluded that, “[g]iven the potential role of nuclear weapons as a political football in a three-way struggle between the central government, Russia, and the non-Russian republics, a clandestine removal of the weapons to Russia would be the most desirable option for the central government… If the central government can withdraw nuclear weapons to the Russian Republic at a gradual pace over an extended period of time, employing standard operational security measures, detection of weapons movements will be very difficult, if not impossible.  If the government is forced to make a rapid withdrawal because of a deteriorating political situation, then the chances of detection are much greater.”[66]

Ultimately, the republics, including Ukraine, on whose soil the nuclear weapons were maintained, would have much greater agency in their final disposition than the DOD initially predicted.  After declaring its independence, Ukraine’s legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a declaration of sovereignty which proclaimed that Ukraine would “become, in the future, a permanently neutral state, which does not participate in military alliances and adheres to three non-nuclear principles: not to receive, manufacture, or acquire nuclear weapons.”[67]  But in the meantime, Ukraine declared that it, not Russia, was the owner of all of the nuclear assets on its soil, some 176 ICBMs, 44 long-range bombers, 1240 strategic nuclear warheads, and an estimated 2,883 tactical nuclear weapons.  The Department of Defense was correct in predicting that Russia would do more to secure the tactical nuclear weapons—the easiest deterrent to Russia or other countries and also the easiest to lose control of—first.  By May of 1992, Russia had successfully withdrawn all tactical nuclear weapons from Ukraine. [68]  The other nuclear assets would not be as easy to move out and led to protracted negotiations.[69]

Several factors pushed Ukraine toward its eventual denuclearization.  The horror of Chernobyl was not the least of them. Its public health consequences and the widely-held antipathy towards Moscow’s bungled, secretive response was linked to the Russian leadership’s seemingly-imperial control over the nuclear weapons and nuclear industry on Ukrainian soil.  In a 1992 interview, Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, exemplified the Ukrainian view that Chernobyl and the nuclear arsenal were near-synonymous: “Ukraine can become a hostage of its own missiles, they can be more dangerous than Chernobyl.”[70]  In another interview later that year, he stated, “It is enough to launch one of these [conventional] missiles into a nuclear power plant—and . . . catastrophe! What I mean is that today nuclear weapons are only psychologically a deterrent factor. In real terms, all of us could be obliterated without nuclear arms. Because there are nuclear power stations. Chernobyl. I think all nuclear weapons must be destroyed.”[71]

Other practical reasons also pushed Ukraine toward denuclearization.  First, the nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory remained under Russian operational command and control.  Analysts have predicted that Ukraine could possibly have broken the Russian authorization codes, rearmed the targeting controls of the cruise missiles on the bombers (which the Russians had disabled) and gained control of the weapons in 12 to 18 months.  But even then—after likely ruining their relationship with both Russia and the United States—Ukraine would still have had to wrest control of the warheads, which were stored separate from the missiles and bombers under Russian guard. Even if Ukraine overcame these obstacles and seized control over these weapons, most would have only been able to be used to deter the United States, not Russia.  For example, the ICBMs had a range of 5,000 to 10,000 km, and could have conceivably been retargeted to hit Russia—but only the Far East, not Moscow.  Of course, Ukraine’s relatively small supply of bombers (if their missiles could be successfully retargeted) and improperly targeted missiles would have been no match for a nuclear war with Russia.

Still, Ukraine’s tenure as a nuclear weapons state may not have lasted long.  Ukraine depended on Russia for key elements of its nuclear weapons program, including enriched and reprocessed uranium and plutonium, new warheads, and missile testing ranges.  Once the weapons’ service life ended, Ukraine would have been hard pressed to replace them.[72]

Despite these circumstances, and the quick acquiescence of Belarus and Kazakhstan, Ukraine managed to negotiate quite a bit in return for its denuclearization.   First, it established itself as a nuclear successor state equal to Russia which chose to relinquish its nuclear weapons for fair compensation.  This parity was established when it signed the Lisbon Protocol (along with Belarus and Kazakhstan) in 1992 which made Ukraine an equal party to the Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty.  Russia opposed Ukraine’s inclusion in START, but ultimately acquiesced to Ukraine’s demands realizing that they would forward the goal of worldwide nuclear reductions.  The Lisbon Protocol also required that Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear weapons states, essentially solidifying the status quo favoring gradual world-wide disarmament in the post-Cold-War order.  Ukraine’s eventual agreement to these terms (it accessioned to the NPT in December 1994) bought it increased aid from the United States, compensation for the tactical weapons already withdrawn to Russia,  future compensation for the highly enriched uranium removed from its territory, and assistance in disassembling and transferring the weapons to Russia. Beyond monetary compensation, through its negotiations Ukraine was able to establish itself as a member in good standing in the international and European order.

What Ukraine did not receive for its denuclearization was a credible security guarantee from the United States or other world powers.  As Mariana Budjeryn has written, “[t]his was not for the lack of trying on Ukraine’s part.”[73] The United States was simply not willing to extend the type of guarantee to Ukraine which it had extended to its NATO allies and other partners.  The “weak tea” assurance that Ukraine ultimately did receive from Russia, the United States and Great Britain was encapsulated in the now-well-cited Budapest Memorandum. [74]  This set of documents, signed December 5, 1994, consisted of six assurances, including the pledge “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” and that “none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”  Tragically and presciently, Ukraine’s President, Leonid Kravchuk, remarked after the signing of the Memorandum, “If tomorrow Russia goes into Crimea, no one will even raise an eyebrow.”[75]

On July 31, 1991, in Novo-Ogarevo, General Secretary Gorbachev also prophetically warned President Bush of the ethnic and territorial risks Ukraine would face in the future: “When western Ukraine started talking about independence, Crimea announced that if this happens it would go to Russia.  Moreover, Crimea declared itself autonomous as the result.  And residents of the Donets Basin remembered that after the Revolution, a Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic was created there.  So they said they may want to restore it.  Hungary’s claims to Ukrainian territories also came up.  The question is: what will be left of Ukraine? ...That’s how sensitive this subject is…  In a word, if we do not keep the issue of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders under control, chaos will break out from which we will never extricate ourselves.”[76]

Gorbachev’s fears have proved correct.  In November 2013, the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych suspended the signing of an association agreement that would have further integrated Ukraine with the European Union.  This policy reversal sparked months of Euromaidan protests and eventually violent clashes in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square between citizens who favored Ukrainian-EU integration and security forces supporting Yanukovych.  In February, 2014, Yanukovych and other government officials fled to Russia.  After Yanukovych fled, Russian forces entered the Ukrainian territory of Crimea,[77] effectively took control of the peninsula’s infrastructure, and imposed a referendum whereupon a majority Crimean residents voted to join the Russian federation.  In late 2014, Russian forces again entered into Ukrainian territory in the Donbass region and were instrumental in creating two separatist “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk which are no longer under the control of the government of Ukraine.

“The final lesson of Ukraine’s denuclearization,” as Mariana Budjeryn and Polina Sinovets have written, “might be that future such deals will come at a much higher cost and will require more robust security commitments of the part of nuclear states.”[78]


Despite the fact that Crimea and the Donbass are mired in conflict with Russia, my experience researching in Odessa, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Lviv, and other cities as a NPIHP nuclear research fellow has made clear to me that the rest of Ukraine is liberalizing, and often thriving.  As this paper has shown, this is especially true at the Ukrainian Archives, including the KGB Archive—a fact that should be noticed by liberal countries with much more closed, inaccessible security service archives.[79]

This incredible collection of intelligence documents—of which my research has just scratched the surface—has provided important new evidence and insight into several important aspects of Ukrainian, Cold War, and worldwide nuclear history.  We now know more about the origins of the Soviet nuclear program, born in Kharkiv.  We have further insight about the Soviet nuclear archipelago, including the knowledge that the USSR’s nuclear endeavors were often haphazard and unsafe, most tragically demonstrated at Chernobyl. We can read documents about how the USSR used spies, including the Ukrainian asset “Michael,” to obtain Western technology used to produce nuclear weapons.

We have learned the toll that the risk of nuclear war took on all Ukrainian and Soviet citizens, forcing them to ask “Is the possibility of a third world war real?”  We can now access key documents showing that fear of nuclear war had spread to the elite by reading Yuri Andropov’s secret speech to the KGB justifying the creation of Operation RYaN—literally “Operation Nuclear Missile Attack,”[80] a strangelovian endeavor to detect (and possibly preempt) a decapitating nuclear first strike that the West had no plans of launching.  

And finally, as the US and Russia foolishly make plans to reintroduce the destabilizing intermediate range nuclear weapons back into Europe,[81] we can study an opportunity missed.  Ukraine is now denuclearized and finally moving toward its “common European home;”[82] but we cannot say the same for the former Soviet Republic of Russia, which controls the world’s largest nuclear stockpile.

Document Appendix

Document No. 1

Report Made at the KGB Party Caucus Meeting by Yu. V. Andropov, 'The Results of 26th Congress of the CPSU and Tasks for the Party Organization of the KGP that Ensue from the CPSU Congress' Decisions and the CPSU Central Committee Report,’ March 25, 1981

[Source: Deiatel'nost' Organov gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR na Sovremennom etape: Sbornik Dokumentov i materialov, No. 15918, Vypusk 2 (Moskva: 1983), in GDA SBU, f. 13, o. 768, pp. 9-27. Obtained by Nate Jones and translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 2

Speech by Yu. V. Andropov at the National Consultation Meetings of the Leadership of the Agency and Troops of the KGB of the USSR, 'On the Tasks of the KGB in Light of the Decisions of the 26th Congress of the CPSU,' May 25, 1981

[Source: Deiatel'nost' Organov gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR na Sovremennom etape: Sbornik Dokumentov i materialov, No. 15918, Vypusk 2 (Moskva: 1983), in GDA SBU, f. 13, o. 768, pp. 34-51. Obtained by Nate Jones and translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 3

Memorandum from S.N. Mukha to Comrade V.V. Shcherbitsky, July 5, 1982

[Source: GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 5, pp. 78-79. Obtained by Nate Jones and translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 4

V.M. Chebrikov, 'On the Results of the November 1982 Plenary Meeting of the CPSU Central Committee and the Tasks of the Party Chapter of the KGB of the USSR that follow from the Plenary Meeting's Decision and from the Speech of the General Secretary,' January 13, 1983

[Source: 'Deiatel'nost' Organov gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR na Sovremennom etape: Sbornik Dokumentov i materialov,' No. 15918, Vypusk 2 (Moskva: 1983), in GDA SBU, f. 13, o. 768, pp. 117-134. Obtained by Nate Jones and translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 5

Memorandum from S.N. Mukha to Comrade V.V. Shcherbitsky, 'On Apprehension of S.V. Kirichenko, who Established a Criminal Connection with the US Clandestine Services,' May 19, 1983

[Source: GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 3, pp. 40-41. Obtained by Nate Jones and translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 6

Memorandum from S.N. Mukha to Comrade V.V. Shcherbitsky, 'On the Reaction to the Speech of the Secretary General of the CPSU CC, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR, Yu. V. Andropov,' September 1983

[Source: GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 13, t. 4, pp. 193-194. Obtained by Nate Jones and translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 7.1

V. Chebrikov, 'On Measures to Improve Preventive Work Conducted by the State Security Service,' October 3, 1983

[Source: National Security Archive READD-RADD Collection. Translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 7.2

V. Chebrikov, 'Order of the Chairman of the State Security Committee of the USSR, Moscow, regarding Measures To Improve The Preventive Work Conducted By The State Security Services'

[Source: National Security Archive READD-RADD Collection. Translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 7.3

Letter of the Collegium of the KGB of the USSR, 'Regarding Measures to Improve the Preventive Work conducted by the State Security Services'

[Source: National Security Archive READD-RADD Collection. Translated by Angela Greenfield.]

Document No. 8

‘To Proudly Bear the Title of the Soviet Checkist, to Increase the Ideological Vigilance, to Strengthen the Discipline and Organization: Letter of the Collegium of the State Security Committee of the USSR Made Public by the Order of the Chairman of the KGB of the USSR,’ September 10, 1984

[Source: 'Deiatel'nost' Organov gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR na Sovremennom etape: Sbornik Dokumentov i materialov,' No. 17342, Vypusk 3 (Moskva: 1986), in GDA SBU, f. 13, o. 691, pp. 135-142. Obtained by Nate Jones and translated by Angela Greenfield.]


[1] William Burr, “U.S. Cold War Nuclear Target Lists Declassified for First Time,” National Security ArchiveElectronic Briefing Book 538 (December 22, 2015), and, Alex Wellerstein, “Mapping the US nuclear war plan for 1956,” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, May 9, 2016. 

[2] Oleksandr Cheban, “Ukraine and Soviet Nuclear History,” Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, August 12, 2015.  The British experiment was conducted by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton on April 14, 1932.

[3]Uranium Mining and Processing Industry,”, cited in Polina Sinovets and Mariana Budjeryn, “Interpreting the Bomb: Ownership and Deterrence in Ukraine’s Nuclear Discourse,” Nuclear Proliferation International History Project Working Paper 12 (December 2017): 20.  

[4] See “Nuclear Prehistory” in David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) for a discussion of the early years of the Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology.  Additionally, eleven volumes of published primary source documents on the Soviet atomic project from 1938 to 1954 and a large selection of Russian language publications on Soviet nuclear history are made available by the Russian state energy company ROSATOM at the website .  

[5] Robert S. Norris, “The Soviet Nuclear Archipelago,” Arms Control Today, January/February 1992, 28-29.

[6] A declassified 1966 Central Intelligence Agency Photographic Interpretation Report shows that the United States had ample imagery and “collateral information” about the production capabilities of YUZHMASH. 

[7] Nuclear Threat Initiative overview.  For an alternative breakdown see William H. Kincade, “Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine: Hollow Threat, Wasting Asset,” Arms Control Today (July/August 1993), 13-18.

[8] The document was entitled, “Questions received by] employees of the KGB of the Ukrainian Republic during a lecture on raising the political vigilance of Soviet people,” State Archives Department of the Security Service of Ukraine (hereafter GDA SBU), fond (f.) 16, opis (o.) 7, delo (d.), 2, tom (t) 5, p. 207.

[9] Iryna Maksymenko and Oleksandr Cheban of The Odessa Center for Nonproliferation at Odessa State University have conducted groundbreaking research there.

[10] See Also available online is a substantial and growing Electronic Archive of Ukrainian Liberation Movement, including a very large collection on the Chernobyl disaster.

[11] Sinovets and Budjeryn, “Interpreting the Bomb.”


[13] The KGB archive is beginning a digitization effort with some its files.  For the purpose of consistency, this paper uses the traditional citation system of Fond, Opis, Delo, Tom. 

[14] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 5 pp.177-178.

[15] The Lithuanian Special Archives also provide large scale access to Soviet security service activities.

[16] For more on conducting research in Ukraine, see Nate Jones, “Unearthing Soviet Secrets in Ukraine’s Archives,” Sources and Methods, November 13, 2017.  For more on conducting research in other Eastern European archives see For an excellent article on research in other Eastern archives, be sure to see Simon Miles, “Researching Through the Back Door: Field Notes from East of the Iron Curtain,” Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review 47, no. 1 (April 2016): 39.

[17] Nikita Khrushchev, “Reply on Disarmament,” Speech at the UN General Assembly, October 11, 1960, quoted from Khrushchev in New York (New York: Crosscurrents Press, 1960).

[18] Much additional information on the Soviet rocket program can be found in the Woodrow Wilson Center History and Public Policy Program’s Digital Archive and V.I Ivkin and G.A, Sukhina, eds., Zadacha osoboi gosudarstvennoi vazhnosti: iz istorii sozdaniia raketno-iadernogo oruzhiia i Raketnykh voisk strategicheskogo naznacheniia (1945-1959) (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2010).

[19] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 11, d. 2, t 1, p. 39.

[20] For further analysis see the RAND Study, “Deception in Soviet Strategic Missile Claims,”1957-1962, Unclassified, Digital National Security Archive; Roy E. Licklider, “The Missile Gap Controversy,” Political Science Quarterly 85, no. 4 (Dec. 1970): 600-615.

[21] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 11, d. 2, t. 1, p. 139.

[22] See for example, GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 68, t. 4, pp. 126-127; GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 68, t. 4, p. 296; and GDA SBU, f. 16,. o. 9, d. 13, t. 3, p. 79.

[23] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 5, pp. 55-61.

[24] See for example, GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 7, pp. 81-86; GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 7, pp 307-312; GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 1, pp. 164-167; and GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 4, pp. 311-314.

[25] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, T 5 pp 177-178.  In another instance of spying on the arts, the KGB in Ukraine was monitoring the “negative actions” of a Estonian musical group, called “Magnetic Band” as it toured Ukraine in 1983; GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 6, pp. 254.

[26] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 4, p. 290.

[27] See V. Chebrikov, 'On Measures to Improve Preventive Work Conducted by the State Security Service,’ October 3, 1983, and its attachments: V. Chebrikov, 'Order of the Chairman of the State Security Committee of the USSR, Moscow, regarding Measures To Improve The Preventive Work Conducted By The State Security Services,’ and ‘Letter of the Collegium of the KGB of the USSR, 'Regarding Measures to Improve the Preventive Work conducted by the State Security Services,' all in National Security Archive READD-RADD Collection. Translated by Angela Greenfield.

[28] GDA SBU, f. 13, o. 678, pp. 34-51.

[29] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 1 , pp. 177-178.  Another KGB document describes how the agency conducted an investigation into another loss of classified military information, including military plans of the Black Sea fleet in 1982.  Through a series of postal misdeliveries, and improper disposals, other classified documents ended up as street litter in Sebastopol, GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 6, p. 134. 

[30]Memorandum from S.N. Mukha to Comrade V.V. Shcherbitsky, 'On Apprehension of S.V. Kirichenko, who Established a Criminal Connection with the US Clandestine Services,' May 19, 1983, GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 3, pp. 40-41. Translated by Angela Greenfield.

[31] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 4, pp. 57-58.

[32] John T. McQuiston, “Technology Leak to Soviets Found,” New York Times, November 9, 1987.

[33]Memorandum from S.N. Mukha to Comrade V.V. Shcherbitsky, July 5, 1982, GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 5, pp. 78-79. Translated by Angela Greenfield. An April 1983 report describes the efforts of the KGB to use an agent “Kolos” (ear) with international connections to spy on nationalist Ukrainians living in Romania who supposedly were attempting to rouse anti-Soviet sentiment in Ukraine; f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 2, pp. 201-203.

[34] The President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, “The Soviet ‘War Scare,’” February 15, 1990, National Security Archive.

[35]Subject: American Academic on Soviet Policy,” December 13, 1983, National Security Archive.

[36]Kommunist, no. 17 (November 1983): 7, originally cited in, Raymond L. Garthoff, The GreatTransition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 85.

[37] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 7, pp. 333-336.

[38] National Security Agency, American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945-1989, Book IV Cryptologic Rebirth, 1981-1989, 1999,  cited in Nate Jones, ed., Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise that Almost Triggered Nuclear War (New York: The New Press, 2016), 312-313.

[39]Pravda, September 29, 1983, originally cited in Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 130.

[40] GDA SBU, f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 4, pp 193-195.

[41]Report Made at the KGB Party Caucus Meeting by Yu. V. Andropov, 'The Results of 26th Congress of the CPSU and Tasks for the Party Organization of the KGP that Ensue from the CPSU Congress' Decisions and the CPSU Central Committee Report,’ March 25, 1981, Deiatel'nost' Organov gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR na Sovremennom etape: Sbornik Dokumentov i materialov, No. 15918, Vypusk 2 (Moskva: 1983), in GDA SBU, f. 13, o. 768, pp. 9-27. Translated by Angela Greenfield.

[42]Speech by Yu. V. Andropov at the National Consultation Meetings of the Leadership of the Agency and Troops of the KGB of the USSR, 'On the Tasks of the KGB in Light of the Decisions of the 26th Congress of the CPSU,' May 25, 1981, Deiatel'nost' Organov gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR na Sovremennom etape: Sbornik Dokumentov i materialov, No. 15918, Vypusk 2 (Moskva: 1983), in GDA SBU, f. 13, o. 768, pp. 34-51. Translated by Angela Greenfield. Emphasis in the original. Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky disclosed this speech and stated that Andropov gave it to “the astonishment of his audience” in 1991, but this is the first documentary confirmation of its occurrence.  Notably, the text of this and the previously cited speech do not specifically use the term “Operation RYaN,” nor do they explicitly reference KGB and GRU cooperation as Andrew and Gordievsky did.  But piecing these speeches together with other contemporary Russian, East German, Bulgarian, and Czechoslovak documents—while more research is needed—largely corroborates Andrew’s and Gordievsky’s account of Operation RYaN.  For more on Operation RYaN, see: Nate Jones, The Soviet Side of the 1983 War Scare, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 647 (November 5, 2018); Bernd Schaefer, Nate Jones, Benjamin B. Fischer, Forecasting Nuclear War, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, November 13, 2014; and Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-1985 (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1991), 67.

[43] Schaefer, Jones, and Fischer, Forecasting Nuclear War.

[44] Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions, 67.

[45] "Stasi Note on Meeting Between Minister Mielke and KGB Chairman Andropov," July 11, 1981, BStU, MfS, ZAIG 5382, p. 1-19. Translated by Bernd Schaefer.

[46] Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 522.

[47] Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI) f. 82, o. 1, d. 37, r. 27-55, pp. 37, cited in Jones, ed., Able Archer 83, 29.

[48] RGANI, f. 82, o. 1, d. 36, r. 27-55, pp. 33-44; Jones, The 1983 War Scare. 

[49] See Nate Jones, National Security Archive Sues DIA for Able Archer 83 Document, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 666 (February 28, 2019).

[50] Colonel L. V. Levadov, “Results of the operational training of the NATO Combined Forces in 1983,” Voennaya mysl’ [Military Thought], no. 2 February 1984, 67 in Nate Jones,  The Soviet Side of the 1983 War Scare, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 647 (November 5, 2018).

[51] This description of the accident draws from David E.  Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy (New York, Doubleday, 2009), 244-253, and Walter C. Patterson, “Chernobyl—The Official Story,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November 1986): 34-36.

[52]Urgent Report, Accident at Chernobyl Atomic Power Station,” April 26, 1986, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Dmitriĭ Antonovich Volkogonov papers, 1887-1995, mm97083838. Translated by Gary Goldberg.

[53]Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident: An Overview,” World Health Organization, April 2006.

[54] Kim Hjelmgaard “30 Years Later: Chernobyl Disaster Could Trigger More Cancer, Deaths,” USA Today, April 25, 2016.

[55]Andropov Letter, Shortcomings in the Construction of the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station,” February 21, 1979, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Dmitriĭ Antonovich Volkogonov papers, 1887-1995, mm97083838. Translated by Gary Goldberg.

[56] GDA SBU f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 6, p. 199.

[57] GDA SBU f. 16, o. 7, d. 2, t. 7, p. 111.

[58] GDA SBU f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 1, p. 11.

[59] GDA SBU f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 1, p. 47.

[60] GDA SBU f. 16, o. 9, d. 13, t. 1, p. 29.

[61] David Albright, “Chernobyl and the U.S. Nuclear Industry,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November 1986): 38-40.

[62] Sergei Akhromeyev and Georgi M. Kornienko, Glazami Marshala I Diplomata (Moscow: International Relations, 1992), 98-99, cited in Cited in Hoffman, The Dead Hand, 252.

[63] Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Gody Trudnykh Reshenii (Moscow: Alfa-print, 1993), 46-55, cited in Hoffman, The Dead Hand, 252.

[64] Tragically, it appears these dangerous weapons may soon be returning to Europe including, possibly in a non-nuclear variant to Ukraine.  See  Mariana Budjeryn, “Without the INF Treaty, Europe could see a new missile power.  (Spoiler: It’s not Russia.), Washington Post, February 26, 2019.

[65] Office of the Secretary of Defense Directorate for Research, “Control of Soviet Strategic Nuclear Weapons Before, During, and After the Coup,” Undated, Secret.

[66] Department of Defense Special Assessment, “USSR: Soviet Nuclear Weapons Outside the Russian Republic,” November 8, 1991, Secret WNINTEL NOFORN.

[67] Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, July 16, 1990.  

[68] Sinovets and Budjeryn, “Interpreting the Bomb,” 3-12.

[69] For a comprehensive discussion of this topic, see Odessa Centre for Non-Proliferation, 20 Years of Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine: Outputs and Outcomes (Odessa: Astroprint, 2007).

[70] “Transcript of President Kravchuk’s Interview to Canadian CTV,” December 14, 1992, State Archive of Ukraine, f. 5233, o. 1, d. 2, p. 4, cited in Sinovets and Budjeryn, “Interpreting the Bomb,” 16.

[71] “Transcript of Interview of President Kravchuk to Elsevier,” December 9, 1992, State Archive of Ukraine, f. 5233, o. 1, d. 2, p. 2, cited Sinovets and Budjeryn, “Interpreting the Bomb,” 25.

[72] Mariana Budjeryn, “Was Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament a Blunder?World Affairs (Summer 2016): 9-20.  Despite the difficulties of immediately using the nuclear arsenal on its territory, Ukraine was far ahead of such nuclear aspirants as North Korea, Libya and Iran in terms of the fissile material, manufacturing capability, and nuclear expertise that it possessed; it could have attained its own sustainable rudimentary nuclear weapons at relatively low cost, although this relatively low cost may still have been prohibitively high during Ukraine’s terrible economic circumstances immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union. 

[73] Budjeryn, “Was Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament a Blunder?,” 19.

[74] France and China also give similar assurances.  “Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine's accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” Budapest, December 5 1994.

[75]  “Kiev Scorns NPT Exchange Deal,” Moscow Times, December 8, 1994, cited in Budjeryn, “Was Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament a Blunder?,” 18.

[76] Record of the Main Content of Conversation between Bush and Gorbachev, Novo-Ogarevo, July 31, 1991, in Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton, The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev Reagan, and Bush Conversations that Ended the Cold War (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2016), p 901.

[77] For a summary of the history of the contested peninsula of Crimea, see Mark Kramer, “Why Did Russia Give Away Crimea Sixty Years Ago?,” Cold War International History Project e-Dossier 47, March 19, 2014.

[78] Mariana Budjeryn and Polina Sinovets, “Denuclearization Again? Lessons from Ukraine’s Decision to Disarm,” War on the Rocks, April 19, 2018.

[79] In the United States, the public is legally barred from researching any Central Intelligence Agency Operational File.  Nate Jones, “’There’s Classified, and Then There’s Classified:’ Tangible Steps to Fix the Classification and Declassification System,“ Public Interest Declassification Board, December 6, 2016.

[80] Also called Operation VRYaN, “Operation Surprise Nuclear Missile Attack.”

[81] Andrew E. Kramer, “Gorbachev Calls Trump’s Nuclear Treaty Withdrawl ‘Not the Work of a Great Mind,’” New York Times, October 21, 2018.  For the possibility of non-nuclear intermediate range missiles being introduced to Ukraine, see Mariana Budjeryn, “Without the INF Treaty, Europe could see a new missile power.  (Spoiler: It’s not Russia.), Washington Post, February 26, 2019.

[82] Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton, “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard,” National Security Archive.


About the Author

Nate Jones

Nate Jones

Director, Freedom of Information Act Project, National Security Archive
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Nuclear Proliferation International History Project

The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

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