The ­­­­­­­­­­Soviet Nuclear War Scare of 1983
You may not be interested in nuclear war, but nuclear war is interested in you …

By Brian J. Morra

“This is not a bluff.” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning in September 2022 made clear his apparent willingness to use “all weapon systems available to us”—including nuclear ones—in the war in Ukraine. Decades after the end of the Cold War and sixty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the specter of nuclear war is once again in the popular consciousness.

In October 2022, President Joe Biden told Democratic Party faithful at a fundraiser, “We have not faced the prospect of nuclear Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Apparently, Biden had forgotten that America and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war in the autumn of 1983. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, called the first half of the 1980s the most perilous period in human history. Yet the 1983 Soviet Nuclear War Scare remains largely unknown and unexamined.

Unlike the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when President John F. Kennedy’s televised speeches received blanket coverage and alarmed the world, the 1983 crisis played out largely out of public view. US government security classification kept most of 1983’s events in the shadows until around 2015, when some key papers were finally declassified. Unlike the concentrated thirteen days of the Cuban crisis, the 1983 tensions played out over a more attenuated ten-week period. Lastly, in 1962, the White House publicly trumpeted its resolution of the crisis. But in 1983, the White House did not even realize it was dealing with a major nuclear crisis until after it had passed.

Background to the 1983 Crisis
To understand the history of the Soviet Nuclear War Scare, it is important to appreciate the mindset of the Kremlin at the end of the 1970s. The aging Communist Party leadership in Moscow worried that the global correlation of forces was moving inexorably in favor of the West. The Soviets judged that they were falling behind on many fronts—economic growth, technology development, military readiness, and geopolitics. 

By the early 1980s, the brief period of superpower détente was over and an openly anti-Soviet American president – Ronald Reagan – was in office. Moscow’s geriatric leaders obsessed about a potential surprise attack from the West. Most of them had personal memories of the shock of Germany’s Operation Barbarossa, a devastating surprise attack on the USSR in 1941. They feared the West could launch a Barbarossa-like nuclear first strike. To prevent a repeat of 1941’s strategic surprise, the KGB – led by Yuri Andropov – initiated Operation RYaN in May 1981, the largest Soviet intelligence collection effort of the Cold War. Its purpose: to uncover secret Western preparations for a nuclear first strike. The Russian acronym RYaN stands for ‘nuclear rocket attack’, implying a surprise attack.

The chief architect of RYaN – Yuri Andropov – was named General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in November 1982. General Secretary Andropov viewed President Reagan with deep suspicion, and his distrust intensified when Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” in March 1983, asserting the Russian government was the “focus of evil in the modern world.” Soon after, Reagan gave a speech revealing the existence of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an ambitious plan to defend the US and its allies from Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles with space-based defenses. The concept was immediately dubbed ‘Star Wars’, drawing from the movie franchise. Those two speeches raised Andropov’s concerns to a fever pitch, and he ordered a redoubling of the RYaN effort. The Western press may have been Star Wars skeptics, but the Soviet leadership believed it could be built, and that it would be a singularly destabilizing advantage for the West. If SDI were successful, the Kremlin concluded, the United States would possess the ability to launch a nuclear first nuclear strike with impunity.

The Kremlin also focused on NATO and on planned US deployments of new Pershing II nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in West Germany and new nuclear-armed ground-launched cruise missiles in the United Kingdom and Belgium. Andropov viewed both weapon systems as first strike threats that could decapitate the Soviet leadership with virtually no warning. The paranoia that created RYaN seemed justified.

The Trigger to the 1983 Crisis
The same month as Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ and ‘Star Wars’ speeches, the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet conducted a massive exercise in the North Pacific. Called FLEETEX 83, it both alarmed and embarrassed the Soviet military. The exercise was winding down on April 2, 1983, when U.S. Navy carrier-based fighters overflew Soviet military facilities in the Kurile Islands.

To Moscow, the Navy overflights fit the RYaN pattern. Were these violations of Soviet airspace an attempt by the Americans to create a predicate for a nuclear first strike? Moscow issued a formal diplomatic reproach (demarche) to the United States decrying the overflights and immediately raised air defense alerts in the Soviet Far East to alarming levels. 

The Soviets were still on high alert on September 1, 1983, when Korean Airlines flight 007, flying from New York to Seoul, via Anchorage, Alaska, flew off course over the North Pacific due to a navigational error. The Korean plane violated Soviet airspace, flying over the Soviet nuclear submarine base at Petropavlovsk and crossing the Sea of Okhotsk, a bastion for Soviet ballistic missile subs. The Soviet Air Defense system was uncertain of the aircraft’s identity and attempted to intercept the intruder several times. As KAL 007 was about to exit Soviet airspace, a Soviet Air Defense Su-15 fighter finally intercepted and shot down the Korean Airlines 747 near Sakhalin Island, killing all 269 people on board, including 62 Americans.  

Text Box: A Soviet Air Defense Force Su-15 fighter-interceptor like the one that shot down KAL flight 007.A jet flying in the sky  Description automatically generated with medium confidence

To the Kremlin, the KAL incident fit the RYaN pattern. It was either a clever American intelligence collection flight, or it was a deliberate provocation designed to create a pretext for a nuclear war. To this day, many Russian leaders believe the KAL flight was a deliberate act of American aggression. 

The KAL shootdown took the already frayed US-Soviet relationship to a breaking point. In official Washington, the narrative that emerged was that the KAL shootdown was an intentional atrocity. On Sept. 5, in a nationally televised speech, President Reagan termed it “the Korean Airline massacre … a crime against humanity.”

About thirty-six hours after the shootdown, a U.S. Navy EP-3 intelligence collection aircraft was orbiting near the KAL 007 crash site when the Soviets wrongly determined the Navy plane had violated Russian airspace. Two Soviet MiG-23 fighters were ordered to shoot down the U.S. aircraft. The EP-3 pilot dove for the wave tops to evade the Russian fighters and after a tense period, the EP-3 reached Japanese airspace, safe from Soviet attack. US Air Force F-15s were sent to intercept the MiG-23s but were ordered to break off without engaging the Soviet fighters, narrowly avoiding direct air-to-air combat.

At the highest levels of government, competing American and Soviet narratives became entrenched. The battle lines were drawn in Washington and in Moscow. Secretary of State George Schultz gave an impassioned presentation before the United Nations Security Council, during which he presented classified evidence of the Soviet attack on KAL 007, raising global tensions to a fever pitch.

The Man Who Saved the World
Weeks later, early on the morning of September 27th, the USSR’s National Missile Defense Center received warnings from its new missile detection satellites that the United States had launched intercontinental ballistic missiles from Grand Forks Air Force Base (one source cites F.E. Warren AFB, as well). The Soviet watch commander that night, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov of the Air Defense Forces, was a signal processing engineer—not a typical watch stander—and he was subbing for a sick comrade. Petrov possessed unique knowledge of the strengths and flaws in the Soviets’ new satellite warning system and assessed that the launch reports—which came in several, harrowing waves—must be false alarms.

The American attacks fit the Operation RYaN gameplan. Petrov later admitted he was worried about how his leadership would react to what he believed was a phantom nuclear strike. Initially, he did not inform his chain of command of the reported attacks. When he finally did, he advised his leadership against a retaliatory attack. 

Petrov—the accidental watch commander—was truly the right man in the right place at the right time. It took Soviet technical experts months to determine what went wrong that night.  Eventually, they concluded that a highly unusual set of atmospheric conditions over the northern tier of the United States caused sunlight to be reflected off high clouds in such a way that the satellites’ sensors mistook the reflections as ICBM launches.  Petrov had to make an assessment in minutes, not months. Had the Kremlin ignored Petrov and instead acted on the phantom American ICBM attack, the world would have been plunged into global nuclear war. 

Text Box: Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, ‘the man who saved the world’.  His career was ended after his heroic actions on the night of 27 September 1983.  Pictured here as a major.A person in a uniform  Description automatically generated with medium confidence

The Petrov incident remained unknown in the West until the late 1990s, years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Given the Kremlin’s paranoia and the severe tension following the KAL tragedy, had someone other than Petrov been on duty, the world might have seen a very different and catastrophic outcome. If Washington had known of the Petrov incident at the time, how would President Reagan have reacted?

Able Archer 83
The final chapter of the crisis occurred in November 1983. NATO initiated a series of interlocking military exercises in September 1983, culminating in a nuclear war drill in November called Able Archer 83. It was designed to practice nuclear command, control, and weapons release procedures—including for the new generation of ballistic and cruise missiles being deployed to Europe. To the Soviets, the exercise appeared to be a cover for a real nuclear first strike on Soviet territory – a nuclear Barbarossa. Moscow reacted by placing their theater and strategic nuclear forces on a system-wide alert of massive proportion. 

Brig. Gen. Leonard Perroots, chief of intelligence for U.S. Air Forces, Europe at the time, noted the Soviet preparations and became deeply concerned. NATO leaders considered whether to order a reciprocal nuclear alert. Perroots, fearing any such action would further inflame an already fraught situation, advised against it. He reasoned the smart approach was to de-escalate the situation by having U.S. forces do nothing unusual. The most dangerous moment came when Able Archer 83 reached its climax: a simulated request to the national command authority for nuclear weapons release.  

The full extent of Soviet preparations for nuclear war were not understood by the Americans at the time, and it took months to assemble the intelligence and create a complete assessment. By the late spring of 1984, Director of Central Intelligence William Casey became convinced that we had nearly stumbled into a nuclear war and briefed President Reagan and the National Security Council principals accordingly. The president noted in a June 1984 diary entry how shocked he was to learn the Soviets believed the West was planning to launch a nuclear first strike.

A person in a uniform  Description automatically generated with medium confidence
Text Box: Brigadier General Leonard Perroots, the senior intelligence officer at US Air Forces, Europe, during the 1983 crisis.  Pictured here as a lieutenant general while director of Defense Intelligence Agency.




Brigadier General Leonard Perroots, the senior intelligence officer at US Air Forces, Europe, during the 1983 crisis.  Pictured here as a lieutenant general while director of Defense Intelligence Agency

The lack of communication between Moscow and Washington had proved fertile ground for catastrophic miscalculation.  In 1983, the two nuclear superpowers were like blindfolded boxers careening toward a death match. Almost no one in Washington realized it.   

Meanwhile, the Kremlin was preparing for war. Soviet Politburo member Grigory Romanov gave a national address in early November 1983, in which he described the geopolitical situation in dire terms. He advised Soviet citizens to participate in civil defense exercises, including evacuations to nuclear fallout shelters in Moscow and other major cities.  Factories, offices, and schools conducted civil defense drills. The Soviet General Staff cancelled the annual fall employment of Soviet Army troops to help with agricultural harvests, keeping those forces in garrison instead. In East Germany, Soviet infantry units were sent to the field with two weeks of rations and ammunition loads, and Soviet Air Force fighter bombers in East Germany and Poland were loaded with nuclear weapons, a highly unusual action.

Soviet nuclear forces remained on varying degrees of alert through the early months of 1984.  Andropov died in February 1984 and Operation RYaN wound down later in the year.  

What are the lessons?
Upon his retirement at the end of 1989, General Perroots wrote a classified end-of-tour report that recounted the events of the Able Archer 83 crisis from his unique perspective.  His 1989 report prompted the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) to launch a full-scale investigation of the 1983 events. The PFIAB’s report, which praised Perroots’ actions during Able Archer 83, was completed in 1990 and was finally declassified in 2015. According to the PFIAB study, General Perroots cited serious concerns about the inadequate treatment of the Soviet war scare by the intelligence community. The Perroots report itself was declassified by the State Department in February 2021, but after the CIA sued to have it reclassified, a federal judge ruled on October 4, 2022, that it should be reclassified.  

Several lessons can be drawn from the near nuclear war of 1983: 

  • Meaningful communication between adversaries is essential. Mutual distrust meant that communication was lacking in 1983 and it nearly led to a nuclear war as a result. It was left to the personal judgment of a few individuals to assess threats and risks and to have the courage to take prudent action.


  • Calm and patience are crucial. Several American leaders, including General Perroots, understood when to apply pressure on the Soviets and when to withdraw it.  Perroots patiently waited for situations to unfold, while taking appropriate action to be able to responsibly defend American interests, if necessary.
  • Knowledge of the enemy and of your own forces is critical. Colonel Petrov knew it was highly unlikely that the United States would launch a nuclear first strike with a handful of ICBMs. Petrov also used his expertise on the USSR’s surveillance capabilities to assess incoming reports from all available sources rather than relying on satellite collection alone.


  • Mirror imaging of one’s adversary is extremely dangerous. The commonly held view in Washington during the crisis was that the Soviet leadership could not possibly believe that NATO would launch a nuclear first strike. As a result, many downplayed numerous indicators of a massive Soviet nuclear alert. ‘Groupthink’ took hold in Washington in 1983 and the 1990 PFIAB report charged that it inadvertently put “our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”

The Impact on Arms Control
During the Cold War, there were two major periods of arms control dealmaking. The first came in the years after 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis and the second came after 1983’s Soviet Nuclear War Scare. Both crises sobered up leaders in Moscow and Washington and motivated them to create meaningful arms control regimes. One of the hallmark treaties of the Cold War, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminated an entire class of weapons – the very weapons at the heart of the 1983 crisis.

Today, nearly all those arms control treaties are dead, abrogated or cancelled either by the United States or by Russia. Of course, China was never a signatory to those treaties. Neither were North Korea and Iran.

Russia now has the world’s largest and most modern nuclear weapons force. China has renounced its policy of nuclear sufficiency and is investing a breakout strategy to create the world’s largest and most modern force, surpassing Russia. Since talks broke down between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang has escalated its nuclear weapons program to the point that it is a direct threat to the United States. Lastly, Iran is prepared to create a nuclear force within months, according to CIA Director Burns.

Soon, the United States will be confronted by two major nuclear powers who have a burgeoning military alliance and with antagonistic regional nuclear powers like North Korea and Iran. This is a much more unstable nuclear balance than the one we lived with during the Cold War. Policymakers in Washington and in allied capitals must come to grips with this new and dangerous situation.

Russo-Ukraine War
Today, as in 1983, open communication between Washington and Moscow is rare. Confronting Russia’s current nuclear threats in Ukraine requires knowledge of the adversary, active communication, sound judgment, and the courage to make tough decisions that prevent escalation. By saying “this is not a bluff,” Putin demonstrated classic brinksmanship—an example of the Russian doctrine of “escalate to deescalate.” 

Recently, Putin reacted to French President Macron’s suggestion that he might put French troops into Ukraine by threatening the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Russia enjoys overwhelming theater nuclear superiority in Europe. Due to that fact, Putin and his national security council believe that they can threaten the use of tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons with near impunity.

Moscow’s nuclear threats are having a real impact on NATO policy. Putin’s intimidations have constrained NATO’s support to Ukraine since the invasion in 2014 and especially since the more recent incursion in 2022. Washinton has modified and calibrated its support to Ukraine out of fear of provoking Moscow. Putin is not deterred by what he sees as feckless leadership in Washington and Brussels.

Would Moscow use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Many observers believe the threats are hollow since Russia might suffer radiation fallout due to the prevailing winds blowing from Ukraine. This ignores the low yield character of battlefield nuclear weapons. The Russian General Staff likely believes that the use of low yield weapons in Crimea or in Western Ukraine would not cause undue harm to Russian territory.

When would Putin authorize the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine? It is conceivable that he would do so only if there is imminent danger of losing key territory like Crimea. In addition, if Putin believes backing down to NATO and Ukraine would create an existential threat to his regime, he will be more inclined to use nuclear weapons. 

Brian J. Morra is a former Air Force Intelligence officer and retired senior aerospace executive.  He is the author of the award-winning historical novel about the Soviet Nuclear War Scare, The Able Archers, published by Koehler Books, which dramatizes the real events of the 1983 Soviet war scare.  The Able Archers has been optioned by Legendary Entertainment to create a feature film or television series.  An audio book is available from Blackstone Publishing. Learn more about The Able Archers and order it in all formats from Amazon,, BookStore, Books-a-Million and at