Soviet Active Measures in The
'Post-Cold War' Era 1988-1991

The Use of Alarmist Arguments

One of the most important but difficult-to-discern aspects of Soviet active measures was the use of seemingly logical arguments. A number of these were formulated for virtually every significant foreign policy issue of concern to the USSR. These arguments were then spread via all the methods available to the Soviet authorities - overt media channels, agents of influence, front groups, covert media placements, diplomatic channels, nongovernmental organizations, and so on.

Many of these arguments were quite appealing and logical-sounding, and they often played on genuine concerns, fears, and perceptions. For example, a September 19, 1991 Kuranty article on the functioning of the KGB Service A officers posted to Novosti Press Agency, excerpted at length in the appendix, highlighted several arguments used by Soviet active specialists. It pointed out:

What is important is that these objectivist materials pushed the same ideas directed at Western politicians and ordinary folks: to boycott the Soviet market means to prolong unemployment; American grain sent to the starving people of Africa is poisoned by pesticides; the Soviets really do not have a superiority in tanks and missiles, the Americans are just about to strike a deal with the Russians behind Western Europe's back, ... and so on.

Similarly, Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky has pointed out, in a January 5, 1992 article in the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet (excerpted at length in the appendix), that the Soviets gave an alleged agent of influence in Denmark, Jorgen Dragsdahl, "facts and arguments" to use in his columns.

During 1990 and 1991, as the disintegration of the USSR became an ever more real prospect, Soviet active measures specialists began to craft alarmist arguments that sought to prey on these fears, for the purpose of convincing Western publics and governments to support the continued existence of the USSR as a unitary state. To support this line of thought, arguments were crafted that sought to convince observers that the disintegration of the Soviet Union would pose grave hazards for the world. Given the natural fear of the unknown, this line of argumentation found a ready audience in many countries.

"15 Nuclear Republics"

In this regard, one of the most successful Soviet active measures campaigns of the "post-Cold War" era sought to stimulate fears in the West that the disintegration of the USSR would lead to the establishment of 15 nuclear states, with unpredictable and, it was intimated, quite possibly extremely dire consequences for the entire world.

There is evidence that the Soviet authorities may not have been as concerned about this issue as they claimed to be. For example, in the December 8, 1990 issue of Rabochaya Tribuna, Gorbachev's military adviser Marshall Akhromeyev stated that "Under no circumstances will centralized control over nuclear weapons and ammunition, including strategic, or over the control systems for these weapons be lost."

At the same time, numerous Soviet spokesmen were systematically stimulating fears of 1115 nuclear states" in communications aimed at foreigners. By stoking these fears, Soviet propagandists sought to exploit understandable Western concerns about nuclear safety in order to try to achieve their own policy goal of preserving the USSR as a unitary state.

Mikhail Butkov, a KGB major who defected in Norway in May 1991, told the British newspaper The Independent (December 15, 1991) that these scare tactics were used covertly by the KGB at the same time that Soviet leaders pushed them publicly. The Independent summarized Butkov's remarks as follows:

Other active measures involved spreading the idea in the West that Gorbachev's disappearance and the breakup of the Soviet Union would lead to the creation of a number of aggressive republics with uncontrolled access to nuclear weapons. Mr. Butkov observes: "In his appeals to the West, Gorbachev used all the arguments that we were ordered to plant."

The "15 nuclear states" theme was spread systematically by the Soviets starting in 1990, and became especially prominent after the abortive August 1991 coup attempt. In the wake of the failed coup, two prominent Soviets of widely varying reputations - Col. Viktor Alksnis, known for his extremely hard-line views, and Yevgeni Velikhov, the erudite scientist and Gorbachev adviser who was viewed as much more 'Liberal - both warned of this alleged danger in interviews on Cable News Network (CNN) on August 28. Velikhov floated a sophisticated version of this argument, calling for the international community to become more involved in examining the issue of the control of the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, while Alksnis' arguments sought to fan hysteria more directly, warning against independence for the republics by claiming they would soon be dropping nuclear bombs on each other.

Similarly, in July 1991, shortly before he joined in the plot to overthrow Gorbachev, then-Soviet Vice President Gennadi Yanayev lectured U.S. journalists, according to the recollections of one of those present, that "it would be a nightmare if the Soviet union turned into 15 states, each with its own armed forces and nuclear weapons." (Washington Post, August 19, 1991) Sergei Rogov, then deputy director of the USSR's Institute on the United States and Canada, made this same argument to U.S. journalists and policymakers in October and November 1991. An interview with Rogov in the Washington Post (October 29, 1991) reported his arguments:

... it is also in the interest of the West to support [Gorbachev's) efforts to maintain some union structure as the Soviet Union's republics spin away, said Sergei Rogov, an arms-control expert in Moscow.

That interest is most compelling when it comes to Gorbachev's efforts to maintain control over the Soviet arsenal of 27,000 nuclear warheads, which are dispersed across several republics. "A civil war in a nuclear superpower is not in the interest of anyone in the world," Rogov said.

Two weeks later, Rogov and a fellow academician from the USA Institute, Andrei Kokoshin, traveled to Washington to deliver the same theme in person to U.S. senators. The Washington Post of December 1, 1991 reported:

The ... two told a small meeting ... that in a "worst case scenario," which they said was not implausible, nuclear weapons could become the focus of struggles for power among the Soviet republics. This was a very volatile, dangerous situation, the senators were told: "America has to wake up."

Despite their seemingly independent and widely varying views, the hard-liner Alksnis, the soon-to-be coup plotter Yanayev, the scientific adviser Velikhov, the academicians Rogov and Kokoshin, and KGB Major Butkov in Denmark each pushed the same active measures theme in their own respective ways to Western audiences. Each was acting as a part of the Soviet active measures and disinformation apparatus, run ultimately by Gorbachev, which orchestrated messages through varying channels in order to influence foreign opinions and policies.

In a related ploy in the waning days of the Soviet Union, the Soviets sought to stimulate fears about catastrophic accidents involving nuclear weapons that might occur if Soviet central authority lapsed. In late December 1991, a high-ranking Ukrainian official, Yevgeni Marchuk, told the Washington Post (December 25, 1991) that these fears were vastly overblown and that he believed they had been deliberately exaggerated by Soviet authorities as part of an active measures campaign. The Post reported:

Marchuk, chairman of Ukraine's new National Security Service, said he is barely troubled by the nightmare scenario of a lost or stolen nuclear warhead that has dominated Western anxieties about the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"With me knowing all the security precautions, this is a fantastic ... [and) entirely implausible" scenario, he said during a lengthy interview....

He said Western anxieties about a nuclear-equipped artillery shell being lost in transit, a tactical rocket being stolen from a truck or a nuclear bomb exploding by accident are greatly exaggerated.

"These rumors were circulated deliberately by the center ..."I he said, suggesting that officials in Moscow tried to create alarm as a means of bolstering support for the former Soviet Union.

Ethnic Conflicts

In a similar way, Soviet officials had earlier warned Westerners that support for nations seeking to secede from the USSR, such as the Baltic states, could lead to an explosion of ethnic grievances in Western Europe and elsewhere. Such arguments played on well-known Western concerns, and may have seemed plausible to the casual observer. But it is unlikely that they were made out of altruistic concern about the possibility of civil strife in the West. It is more likely that such arguments were formulated and spread in order to achieve the purposes of Soviet foreign policy.

The Russian Winter

A perennial, although seasonal, alarmist theme spread by the Soviet active measures apparatus was "How are we going to make it through the coming winter? Every year, as the weather turned cold, the impending arrival of the Russian winter was used by Soviet active measures specialists as a vehicle for stimulating fears that catastrophic events might occur in the USSR during the long, cold winter months if more Western aid were not forthcoming, or some other concession made to Soviet preferences. Despite its crudity and simplicity, or perhaps because of these characteristics, the "Russian winter" theme was probably one of the more effective Soviet alarmist themes. It struck a responsive chord within people worldwide and at a basic level seemed intuitively obvious and correct. In addition to its simplicity, it was also a very low cost manipulative tool. After all, anyone could master the use of such a simple theme without any special training, and it no extensive research was needed to formulate the theme.

The Break-down of the
"Command Administrative" System

Another argument frequently put forward during the "post-Cold War" era sought to explain the food shortages that were then affecting some Soviet cities by putting forth the very reasonable sounding proposition that this had been caused by the fact that the old "command-administrative" economic system had been destroyed, but the new market-oriented system of distribution had not yet had a chance to take hold. In his book Eyewitness, the prominent Soviet journalist Vladimir Pozner stated that he believed this theme was propagated by hard-line Soviet officials in order to mask what he believed was their deliberate economic sabotage of the popularly elected mayors of Moscow and Leningrad (Gavril Popov and Anatoly Sobchak):

Soon after Popov and Sobchak were elected to office in 1989, both Moscow and Leningrad began to suffer badly from a lack of food. Dairy products, meat, vegetables, even bread were not reaching the stores. The explanation for this - or at least the one usually trotted out when journalists made inquires - was that the old mechanism had been destroyed, while no new one had been set up to replace it. That sounded plausible enough, but it was not the truth or, at least, certainly not the whole truth.

What was really going on was economic warfare. The Moscow and the Leningrad oblasts (administrative areas) were under control of their respective Party secretaries who, in turn, controlled the many regional secretaries of each oblast. ... I have very good reason to believe that the food shortages in Moscow and Leningrad (as well as in Volgograd and Sverdlovsk, where democrats swept the old guard out of office) had very little to do with the breakdown of the old system or the absence of a new one. They had to do with a calculated effort on the Party's part to starve out the democrats, to artificially make the food situation even worse that it was by slowing down deliveries, decreasing production and creating other such nuisances. (pp. 178-179)

In this way, a very plausible and perhaps partially true argument was used to divert attention away from the machinations of hard-line CPSU officials to try to discredit their democratic opposition. This argument was widely repeated in foreign media analyses of Soviet economic difficulties.

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