Spent several days reading piles and piles of documents and analysis on Able Archer - that moment in Nov. 1983 when the Soviets and the Americans nearly ended in an accidental nuclear war (or not?).
There was a lot of discussion of the episode earlier this year because of the release of the relevant FRUS volume, which included a testimony by Leonard H. Perroots. Here's the document: history.state.gov/historicaldocu…. Makes a pretty good reading by itself but...
Check out also this oped by @FOIANate and @thedeadhandbook: washingtonpost.com/national-secur… and also this rebuttal by Simon Miles: warontherocks.com/2021/03/the-my….
To sum up, those in favour of the war scare point to new bits of evidence, in particular to the fact (mentioned by Perroots) that Soviet forces in East Germany and Poland went on a heightened state of alert and potentially prepared to fight a nuclear war.
They also point to Andropov's worries about an accidental nuclear war, and his long-term concern that the West would launch a nuclear attack under the cover of exercises. Finally, they point to Gordievsky's testimony that suggests that the Soviet intel *were* very worried.
Those against argue that the Soviets, while worried, were not exactly on the edge. Miles, for instance, asks why, if they were so scared, did they only put a small portion of the forces on alert, and why there's scant evidence of nuclear alert in Eastern European archives.
He also asks how it all of this square with oral history, which (except for Gordievsky) generally points in the direction of the Soviets not taking Able Archer all that seriously.
My take: I don't have one. Having read everything that is currently available, I must sadly conclude that we don't have sufficient evidence to unequivocally claim one or the other. The smoking gun, if there's one, would be the relevant Politburo records, which remain closed.
So, there we go, having spent a long, long time reading everything and can't come to a plausible conclusion. Useless!

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More from @DrRadchenko

2 Jun
Came across some curious documents on the nuclear arms race in the early 1980s that I just have to share. Quite a mini-story that shows how policy-making in the Soviet Union worked at that stage.
The dramatis personae are... Brezhnev, his foreign policy aide Aleksandrov-Agentov, KGB head Andropov, Defense Minister Dmitrii Ustinov, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and... George Kennan.
The story starts on May 18, 1981 when George Kennan, on receiving the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, called for cutting superpower nuclear arsenals by 50%. Here's the NYT story about it:
Read 10 tweets
17 May
Rereading Patrick Tyler's A Great Wall this morning reminded me of just how much historians' assessments are influenced by events she or he has experienced. Check out Tyler's unsparing criticism of Reagan's China policy. He argues Reagan never understood Beijing's point of view.
Tyler's book was published in 2000, which was close to the high point of China optimism in the US. Tiananmen was already a long time ago, and China seemed to be on its way... somewhere good. I still remember debates in the academic literature about its gradual democratisation.
Hong Kong got off to a good start, and there was reason to hope, perhaps, that a "diplomatic solution" for Taiwan could be found. In general, China appeared to be more of a benign actor than before or since.But fast forward twenty years; lines above could not've been written now.
Read 5 tweets
15 May
This is an interesting case. At one level, you might argue that the rift between Russia and Ukraine is clear (damning!) evidence of the failure of Russian foreign policy. At another level, one might also ask about the purpose of Russian foreign policy. 👇🏿
If the purpose is to maximise Russia's influence in its immediate neighbourhood, promote Russia's economic interests and project soft power, then the record is utter and complete failure.
On the other hand, if the purpose is to legitimise Putin's otherwise illegitimate regime by promulgating the narrative of confrontation with the West and Ukraine, then one might argue the policy has succeeded very well.
Read 6 tweets
15 May
A first-rate piece here by Igor Gretskiy who contradicts arguments put forward by me and also my St. Petersburg colleague Ivan Kurilla concerning the viability of Russia's integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions in the early 1990s. 👇🏿
I would broadly agree with Igor's critique to the effect that we need to understand Yeltsin's actions as motivated primarily by the imperative of maintaining political power. The legitimation discourse of "confronting the West" can be said to have contributed to this purpose.
An open question is why that narrative of confrontation was the one that ultimately prevailed. Was it because, as Igor argues, the Russians were not open to 'non-imperial' narratives or was it because door to the West was closed, making the imperial narrative the default option.
Read 8 tweets
5 Apr
A good laugh here from my friend @LorenzLuthi, which reminds me of an episode from my youth. 👇🏿
Once, a ship from socialist Vietnam docked in my hometown in Sakhalin, bringing tons of bananas! For whatever reason, these bananas could not clear customs, so they did not actually appear on the empty shelves. They started going bad, and were dumped in boxes right in the port.
The port was a high-security facility but unbeknownst to the authorities there was a hole in the fence. So along with other kids I went on a banana-hunting expedition. We scoured through rotting boxes, making away with whole sacks of slimy but still perfectly eatable bananas.
Read 4 tweets
1 Apr
A fairly common-place take on the late Cold War that is somewhat off both in terms of the broader picture and the particulars. As far as the Soviets were concerned, detente began to fall apart almost immediately after it was inaugurated with the 1972/73 Brezhnev-Nixon summits.
Brezhnev's hopes for economic engagement with the US ran aground, partly because of Ford's weakness, and the passing the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Decline in the Soviet positions in the Middle East post-1973 pointed to limits of condominium Brezhnev hoped to achieve with the US.
So disappointed were the Soviets with Ford that they welcomed Carter's election in 1976 but he annoyed Moscow with his human rights agenda that (to the Soviets) smacked of arrogance unacceptable in relations between "equal" superpowers.
Read 14 tweets

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