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The official Russian acronym for surprise nuclear attack is VRYAN.
It derives from the Russian words, “vnezapnoye raketno-yadernoye
napadenie.” In the early 1980s the Russians began one of their most
intensive intelligence operations, which went by the code-name of
VRYAN. This operation involved an unprecedented collaboration between
the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) and the
Soviet secret police (KGB). This operation was tasked with examining a
wide range of U.S. actions to determine if America was preparing for
According to Russian strategists, preparations for a world war cannot
be hidden. After all, nuclear war isn’t something you decide on Tuesday
morning and initiate on the following Friday afternoon. Such a war
requires intensive planning and preparation over a period of months and
years. The destructive effects of nuclear weapons cannot be otherwise
mitigated. Therefore, special tasks must be carried out to assure
post-war recovery, and for the exploitation of what Russian strategists
call “nuclear rocket supremacy.” For example, an attacker must quietly
move key factories to secret underground locations. An attacker must
also stockpile strategic supplies, raw materials, food, fuel, and
machine tools for rebuilding vital industries. In fact, the most
dramatic advanced measures would have to appear in open press reports.
The Russian generals believe that only an extensive disinformation
campaign could mask such preparations. If factories are to be moved, a
benign explanation must be offered. If troops are mobilized, if
security is to be increased at strategic facilities, a phony internal
crisis must be presented as the root cause.
But how could anyone expect to win a nuclear war?
Nuclear war has two basic objectives. The first objective is the
elimination of the enemy’s strategic weapons. The second objective is
the preservation of friendly nuclear strength in order to blackmail the
surviving countries. A country that successfully destroys all opposing
nuclear weapons (while retaining a large nuclear reserve) can dictate
the shape of the future.
In Russian thinking, a nuclear war is not simply an exchange of
nuclear strikes. Many countries would be invaded and occupied in the
aftermath of a nuclear exchange. Lacking the firepower to strike back,
these countries wouldn’t dare to resist with conventional forces. In
fact, all resistance would be smashed by Russia’s reserves of nuclear
and biological weapons. A resisting country’s administrative centers
would immediately suffer obliteration. Biological attacks would
depopulate leading cities. Armies would collapse after the bombing of
their supply bases. Horrible consequences would follow for millions of
This is how the successful side in a nuclear exchange can translate
wholesale slaughter and destruction into a new world order. Even if the
prevailing country has been devastated by counter-strikes, its
reconstruction is assured by means of nuclear blackmail against
undestroyed countries. Such blackmail would allow the prevailing
country to rebuild its destroyed infrastructure and feed its people.
Even if half the people in a country are killed, this is no argument
It is true that other countries, besides Russia and America, possess
nuclear weapons. Great Britain, France and Israel have several hundred
nuclear weapons between them. But these arsenals are small and
vulnerable. Bombing Russia and stirring the rubble of cities already
bombed would be a laughable kind of deterrence.
If America’s nuclear forces were ever destroyed, Russia and China
would control the earth. No power could resist them. No defense exists
to stop them. Therefore, the eyes of the Russian General Staff are on
America’s missiles. That is what they care most about. And it’s what
they worry about. America’s nuclear forces protect Western civilization
from destruction and conquest by the nuclear-armed barbarism of Russia
The strategists who developed Russia’s VRYAN program understand all
of this. In the early 1980s they listed hundreds of indicators of
impending nuclear attack. In his book, “War Scare,” former CIA analyst
Peter Vincent Pry mentions only a few of the VRYAN indicators. Among
these, Pry lists any change in the day-to-day posture of U.S. or NATO
forces, unusual high-level meetings, increased intelligence activity,
suspicious disinformation, repressive measures against subversives,
increased security at strategic sites. Among the economic indicators
would be an increase in gold purchases and a drive by American blood
banks to build up the blood supply.
Russian military doctrine has always stressed the need for striking
first. A first strike is vital to final success. According to Pry,
“Soviet military textbooks written in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s
generally endorsed the view that nuclear war could be won and that
victory was likely to go to the side that struck first.”
Any indication of a U.S. first strike would mean that Russia would
have to strike even earlier. The reason a first strike is so important
has to do with the nature of nuclear missile weapons. One defector from
the Soviet General Staff, writing under the name Viktor Suvorov,
compared the problem of nuclear war to that of two gunmen in the old
West. The man who draws first will probably win the fight. His
opponent might well be shot down before he can even pull the trigger.
Near the beginning of the Cold War many U.S. analysts, generals and
politicians realized that nuclear missile weapons were inherently
destabilizing because of the need to strike first. There would be
strong temptations, they argued, for hitting an opponent that fell
behind in a nuclear arms race. The idea was to strike before the weaker
side could close the gap.
This temptation to strike first is so strong that it has even
affected Western leaders. At a time when the United States had the only
working atomic bombs, Winston Churchill privately urged U.S. leaders to
deliver an ultimatum to Russia. In Marc Trachtenburg’s critically
acclaimed book, “History and Strategy,” Churchill is quoted as saying,
“We ought not to wait until Russia is ready.” In 1948 Churchill argued
in the House of Commons for “bringing matters to a head” while America
yet retained its atomic monopoly. Churchill told the House of Commons
that this approach offered “the best chance of coming out of it alive.”
Churchill pointed to the extreme aggressiveness of the Russians at a
time when the U.S. had all the nuclear weapons. Imagine, said
Churchill, what will happen “when they get the atomic bomb and have
accumulated a large store.”
Churchill was not alone in suggesting that the West should destroy
its enemy while it had the chance. John von Neumann, a leading
mathematician and the founder of game theory, said, “If you say why not
bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock,
I say why not one o’clock.”
This way of thinking may seem shocking for its immorality, and
President Truman quickly moved to suppress it, but nobody can deny its
logical character. According to Trachtenburg, State Department
moderates like Charles Bohlen and George Kennan flirted with the idea of
preventive war. Even the New York Times made unusual suggestions when
William L. Laurence, the Times science correspondent in 1948, wrote
about preemptively bombing Russia’s atomic plants before they could
produce any bombs.
It was all empty talk, of course, because Americans don’t believe in
unprovoked nuclear attacks — even against hair-trigger psychopaths like
Stalin. Gen. Orvil Anderson, the head of the Air War College, was
dismissed by President Truman for advocating a preventive war with
Russia. According to Trachtenburg, Anderson had delivered long lectures
to students on carrying out a preventive nuclear strike. “Give me the
order to do it,” boasted Anderson, “and I can break up Russia’s five
A-bomb nests in a week. And when I went up to Christ — I think I could
explain to Him that I had saved civilization.”
Similar attitudes were present in other Air Force commanders — most
notably in Gen. Curtis LeMay, the first general to command a nuclear
offensive, famous for boasting that he was “bombing Japan into the stone
age” during World War II. LeMay and Gen. George Kenney, first chief of
America’s Strategic Air Command, along with Gen. Nathan Twining, were
sympathetic to Anderson’s idea of a preventive nuclear war.
But as Marc Trachtenburg points out in his book, all the leading
officials of the Truman administration hated the preventive war idea.
Later, in 1953, President Eisenhower seriously considered expanding the
Korean War into China because it had become a bloody mess with no end in
sight. Eisenhower did not like the war’s lingering quality. Already,
by late 1952 the Korean War had claimed 3 million lives, including more
than 50,000 Americans. It was believed that widening the war might
bring the Communists to the peace table, or trigger a full blown atomic
war with Russia.
A major U.S. government study was conducted on the consequences of an
atomic war with Russia in 1953. The study predicted that most of our
European allies would retreat into neutrality. The study also predicted
that the war would cost ten million American lives and last for ten
years. Nonetheless, the study said that America would win the war. The
Communists apparently agreed with this analysis, because after
Eisenhower told them his intentions they quickly changed their position
and agreed to an armistice on July 27, 1953.
Never again did an American president seriously threaten world war
against the Communist bloc. By 1957 the idea of a winnable nuclear war
against Russia had completely died out. It was no longer acceptable.
Atomic bombs were being replaced by even more powerful “city busters” of
thermonuclear design. By the early 1960s Khrushchev was boasting that
Russia was mass producing intercontinental rockets “like sausages.”
America’s nuclear superiority finally declined into nuclear parity and
then into nuclear inferiority.
The nuclear stand-off lingers into the present. While the Russians
watched carefully for signs of American nuclear war preparations,
America remains totally oblivious to Russian preparations.
What would an American VRYAN list look like?
In next Monday’s column I will present a list of approximately 30
indicators of things you would expect to see if Russia were
contemplating a nuclear war. Do Russia’s present moves conform with
these indicators — many of them used by the Kremlin to predict an
American nuclear attack?
Read this column on Monday to find out.