Overseeing “Sounder” in Moscow, Part I

Date: 09/01/2021

Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.

Today’s Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale is the first of a three-part story. It is also the beginning of the new arrangement with “mother” whereby I have greater leeway in what I am permitted to talk about.   

It seems some positive things happen when you don’t back down.

As I noted last week, some of what I will be writing about will not go down easy.  There will be occasional direct criticism woven into the narratives coming and a fair amount of that will be directed at my own mistakes and shortcomings. This is the real world of intelligence. A fair portion remains from beginning to end out of focus.

War may be waged in a fog, but the Cold War was also fought with a lot of moving pieces, many beyond one’s control. You start rolling a snowball down the hill and quickly lose any ability to determine who it rolls over. Some of what will be coming over the next several months is difficult to confront even now.

So, I am today bringing you back to a period in the 1980s in which I was residing in Moscow, serving overtly as a foreign lecturer at an institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and under a multiyear intelligence op as a NOC (somebody not having an official cover).

Some of the background has been covered in several earlier Spy Tale entries (see “Setting the Stage in Moscow,” CIB, #84, May 12, 2021;”  “Cornering ‘Sergei’ in Arbat,” CIB, #92, June 9, 2021;” and “‘Sergei’ Runs Interference to Sheremetyevo,” CIB, #94, June 16, 2021).

But as a summary of matters discussed previously, I spent extended periods in Moscow over a period of four years, finally ending in 1989. The “cover” remains valid throughout – a foreign lectureship post requested by the Soviet Academy, one I held in my own name and in which I was actually performing what I was supposed to be doing.

It was the “other” matter that could create some real problems. I was not allowed to discuss what my mission was when it first came up several months ago. After my latest agreement, that discussion can now begin today.

First, some broad strokes. The op took seven years to play out. It was the longest running assignment of my intel career and my primary (and really only) responsibility during all the years spent in Moscow.

The initial contact came at a London scholarly conference in August 1983 and ended with a December 1990 death in a dacha outside Moscow.

The center of attention was a fellow I will call Giorgi Kakabadze (not his real name). He was 54 when I first met him, from Soviet Georgia and the Institute of Philosophy at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He would die just short of a 61st birthday.

Trained as a logician, he was presenting a paper (as was I) in one of those multidisciplinary meetings in the philosophical nether regions of academia when our paths first crossed. He clearly had been a practicing scholar at one time but had only recently come back into the fold.  That was clear from his paper’s footnotes. There were no sources more recent than fifteen years ago.

The conference theme was addressing perceptions of risk in theoretical thinking and Giorgi was presenting some preliminary ideas about how the expression of risk had an inverse relationship to how specific a person was when trying to explain it.

Not an uninteresting thesis as far as it went. Unfortunately, some in the audience decided he should be questioned about Soviet foreign policy instead and assume personal responsibility for recent moves by Moscow making it more difficult for people to emigrate from the USSR.

I criticized the appropriateness of the questions and attempted to bring the conversation back to Giorgi’s paper. We were staying in the same small hotel on Upper Woburn near Euston Station (the Ambassador) and began having meals together.

The hotel is now called the Ambassadors Bloomsbury and is much nicer (after a major updating) from when we were staying there almost forty years ago. Then, it was a standard low price (for London) place barely affordable to academics, just this side of a dormitory. Our rooms had a common bathroom at the end of the hall.

Ambassadors Bloomsbury today photo:

However, nothing here was by chance. Giorgi had earlier contacted the US Embassy with an interest to serve as an intel asset back in Moscow. I was hastily put on the program of the conference to do an initial read on the fellow. After we determined where he would be staying, I moved into the Ambassador from my apartment in Kensington (see “Cornering a Spy Runner in a Knightsbridge Restaurant,” CIB, #72, March 31, 2021).

As I have frequently noted in these Spy Tales, my primary responsibility was Soviet counterintelligence. And Giorgi was certainly of great interest. That’s because he was hardly just an academic. There was something else going on.

As usual, some background. Giorgi had served for over a decade in Paris on the Soviet delegation at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO). On April 23, 1983, the French government expelled 47 Soviets, accusing them of espionage. Giorgi was not on the list but Moscow decided unilaterally to withdraw additional personnel beyond the 47. One morning, Giorgi just showed up at the Academy’s Institute of Philosophy and resumed an academic career he apparently had left years earlier.

Yuri Andropov had become the USSR General Secretary in November of 1982. Before that he had been chairman of the KGB from May 1967 until May 1982. Late in his KGB position, Andropov had created a new division of the spy agency to recycle those who had been “blown” in foreign assignments. They were inserted back onto their older careers, still espionage officers but now operating under a new professional cover.

From those new positions, these folks would be reinjected back into the world as journalists, administrators, scientists, or, as the case with Giorgi, academics/scholars. The idea was for them to take back up assignments recruiting agents abroad but now using a different career base.

We had concluded Giorgi had been well up the ladder. Intel provided strong reason to believe he was a KGB two star (i.e., major) general and had been instrumental in running a network of foreign illegals (officers and agents under deep cover with no overt connection to Soviet embassies).

In addition to UNESCO, he had served at the Soviet embassies in London and Washington and had excellent English and French. He quickly became a target of highest interest. But he did not want to be run by one of the Agency officers from our embassy in Moscow. Since he was regularly out of the country building back up an international scholarly visibility (a situation I personally knew well), he preferred to be debriefed outside the USSR.

That did not work very well, given his irregular travel schedule. However, it did allow the two of us to develop a relationship. I would send him books he could not find back home along with a gift now and then for his only granddaughter. Occasionally, we would meet over the next year at conferences in Europe, several of which were back in London.

At some point in the process, after we had become well known to each other, I revealed my “other role” as an intel officer. Giorgi just smiled, leading me to conclude that he already knew.

But events toward the end of 1983 made matters far more serious, changing the dynamics significantly. We knew that Andropov’s health was failing, but we did not know at the time how bad it was. We later learned that he had moved into a hospital, was one of the few Soviets on dialysis full time as his kidneys failed. He died on February 9, 1984. In all he would run the country for only 15 months.

In retrospect, Andropov’s main accomplishment was to bring in a group of younger future leaders, including his confidant Mikhail Gorbachev who, after a short respite in which the last geriatric (Konstantin Chernenko) led the government, would become the last Soviet head of state (the final General Secretary and the first and only Soviet President).

Meanwhile, the Soviet-US relationship continued to sour. Andropov had a conviction that the US was planning to undermine and even attack the Soviet Union. The first was certainly true but the second was not.

Nonetheless, following a blunt assessment a few years earlier by Soviet leadership that the US and NATO were developing a nuclear preemptive attack, Andropov had the KGB and GRU (Soviet military intelligence) develop counter measures. Called Operation RYaN (from the Russian for “Nuclear Missile Attack”— Ракетное Ядерное Нападение), it was to act as an early tripwire response. Andropov personally believed the West was planning such an attack.

Soviet RYaN Declaration, 1981 source:

That belief and the existence of RYaN as an official policy led to a succession of miscalculations beginning in the late Summer of 1983 that significantly ramped up the crisis environment. Three events in rapid succession, brought us closer to war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

First, on September 1, Korean airline flight KAL 007 (how appropriately numbered) was shot down over Soviet airspace killing all 269 onboard. It had strayed some 350 miles inside the USSR in what the Soviets had labeled an espionage mission.

I will not prolong this Spy Tale with a discussion of why the Soviets were not entirely wrong. There had been examples previously of civilian passenger aircraft probing the USSR Asian borders to determine Soviet radar capability and military response procedures.

Then, on the night of September 26, 1983, the Soviet orbital missile early warning system (Oko) signaled the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from US territory. This was followed in short order by Oko reporting four more ICBM launches against the USSR.

A lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Force named Stanislav Petrov was on duty that night overseeing the telemetry from Oko. Petrov correctly concluded that the signals were computer glitches from a newly installed system and refused to pass on the warning. His view was subsequently confirmed by the lack of any corroborating data from ground based early warning radar systems.

Stanislav Petrov, ca 2015 photo:

Petrov got in trouble for not following procedures. But doing so might well have triggered a real life Fail Safe or Dr. Strangelove. Above is the fellow who probably prevented a World War III.

However, the tension was rising on both sides and set the stage for a spark that came close to starting a serious hot war. On November 7, the 1983 version of Able Archer began.

This was a major NATO war game conducted each year in which, among other things, nuclear weapons protocols for striking both Warsaw Pact members and the USSR were rehearsed. The assumption of the exercise was a conventional force overrun of Western Europe by Warsaw Pact forces and the operationalizing of the promised NATO nuclear response. The Soviets never liked this but previous leadership in Moscow had learned to live with it.

Not this time. Andropov believed the 1983 Able Archer version was a deception to cover an actual attack. A massive mobilization of troops quickly resulted, with Soviet nuclear missile and bomber detachments elevated to their highest state of readiness (equivalent to the US DEFCON 1).

A page from the NATO Exercise Able Archer 83 “playbook” photo:

Control rooms like that pictured above were set up in five East German locations to track Western moves and plan counter operations. While the immediate situation was defused, these control centers remained.

Assets in several Warsaw Pact nations in short order indicated how paranoid the situation had become and a decision was made to upgrade with all possible speed the network of assets in place to serve as our own early warning system.

Giorgi was given the codename Sounder. His status was upgraded and the decision made to set up a local intermediary for his activities. The individual could not be anybody from US embassy personnel since everybody there had KGB surveillance. Given the overarching “Moscow Rules” that animated intel activity in the city, any unexplained personal contact would be held suspect.

Somebody had to be put in close proximity to Sounder who had an ongoing reason to meet with him. And so began the process of issuing me an official invitation to his Academy Institute as a foreign lecturer.

The story continues next time.

Dr. Kent Moors

This is an installment of Classified Intelligence Brief, your guide to what’s really happening behind the headlines… and how to profit from it. Dr. Kent Moors served the United States for 30 years as one of the most highly decorated intelligence operatives alive today (including THREE Presidential commendations).

After moving through the inner circles of royalty, oligarchs, billionaires, and the uber-rich, he discovered some of the most important secrets regarding finance, geo-politics, and business. As a result, he built one of the most impressive rolodexes in the world. His insights and network of contacts took him from a Vietnam veteran to becoming one of the globe’s most sought after consultants, with clients including six of the largest energy companies and the United States government.

Now, Dr. Moors is sharing his proprietary research every week… knowledge filtered through his decades as an internationally recognized professor and scholar, intelligence operative, business consultant, investor, and geo-political “troubleshooter.” This publication is designed to give you an insider’s view of what is really happening on the geo-political stage.

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