Rainer Rupp about ‘Able Archer,’ his work in NATO headquarters, the Syrian War and the conflict with Russia

Sept. 19, 2015

In the early 1990s he was “most wanted.” The Attorney General at that time called it the “biggest search operation of the German Federal Republic’s police services in the postwar period.” Rainer Rupp, under the code name “Topaz,” had delivered highly sensitive information from NATO headquarters in Brussels to the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance (HVA) of the German Democratic Republic. Rupp was arrested in 1993 and sentenced by the Higher Regional Court (Oberlandesgericht) in Dusseldorf to 12 years’ imprisonment. He was released in the year 2000. The superspy, who turned 70 on Sept. 21, gave the following interview to Karlen Vesper of the newspaper Neues Deutschland. Vesper’s questions are in bold.

Rainer Rupp

Rainer Rupp

Mr. Rupp, was there really a threat of World War III in 1983? And was it actually you who prevented it?

I never said that, and I’ll never say it. I’m not so presumptuous. I can only quote others. Milton Bearden, former chief of the CIA’s Department for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, is convinced there was such a danger and expressed this publicly at the International Spy Conference on May 7, 2004, in Berlin. Also Benjamin Fisher, longtime collaborator and chief historian of the CIA, has this view. Also Vojtech Mastny, professor of strategy at the Military Academy of the U.S. Navy, supported this view in his pamphlet, “Did East German Spies Prevent a Nuclear War?” regarding my role in the crisis in 1983. The same viewpoint can be read in publications of “Parallel History Project on Cooperative Security,” a Zurich-based international research program on security issues, and not only during the Cold War. And Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chief at that critical time, in a 2005 interview with a German television station pointed out that my actions kept the conflict from escalating in 1983 and blowing up. Last but not least, an award-winning German television documentary in a voice-over commentary raised the question: “Did Rainer Rupp possibly prevent the Third World War?”

How did it happen that in November 1983 the world was again, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, on the brink of a nuclear war? And what was your contribution in concrete terms to prevent it?

From Nov. 7 to 11, 1983, there was a European NATO command staff exercise that simulated a nuclear war: “Able Archer.” I was sitting at the time in the nerve center of NATO, and was head of the Current Intelligence Group. This group gathered all information on the situation of the enemy and their own in one place. Early in the morning each day they met under a rotating chairmanship and evaluated the synthesis of the problems that in turn were sent to the NATO command bodies and to the governments and secret services of the NATO countries. In times of crisis or at the time of staff maneuvers, in which we planned to use nuclear weapons in a first strike …

“We” – out of your mouth?

I used “we” according to my former identity at NATO Headquarters. As head of the Current Intelligence Group I had to also deliver this information before the Supreme Defense Planning Council. I had all the top-secret information “at my fingertips,” as they say. I could also access everything (laughs), not just the information that I got to see during my tenure, but also that which came before.

The Soviets were completely convinced that “Able Archer” was the cover for a real nuclear strike. They believed that starting from this maneuver a strike aimed at decapitating the command, control and communication centers of the Soviet army, the state apparatus and the party apparatus would be carried out with the help of the new ultra-modern and precise tactical nuclear missiles, Pershing II and cruise missiles for which you had a warning time of only five to eight minutes. With these rockets, the criminal gang in the Pentagon hoped to decapitate the Soviet army, so that they — a quote that I myself have heard — “would run around the farmhouse like a chicken with its head cut off.”

The Soviet fear seemed justified given the then low level of relations between East and West. In March 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and announced the start of the missile defense program SDI [Star Wars].

As head of the Current Intelligence Group, I saw that the fear of a nuclear strike was unfounded. There was no sign in my files of such a strike. That didn’t make NATO any more peaceful, but in this particular situation it was important knowledge. In order to allay the concerns of the Soviets, I scanned all the documents — whether important or not — and sent them to the GDR. Since all documents were officially numbered, the comrades in the HVA and Moscow could clearly see that nothing was missing and nothing important had been overlooked. At the height of the crisis this was supplemented by daily messages to East Berlin. And since they had a corresponding confidence in the sources, Moscow finally dropped the option of a pre-emptive counter-attack.

In view of the many new, never-ending wars in the Middle East and to the escalating confrontation between the U.S. and Russia –  is there again the threat of a Third World War? What if the Russians and Americans shoot at each other in Syria? And the French and English, as was announced recently, want to drop bombs inside Syria?

I do not think that a third world war is now an imminent risk. The Syrian spark, however, can quickly jump over to the Ukraine. In U.S. media and talk shows a year ago this opinion was expressed openly and hatefully to Moscow: “The crisis in Ukraine is the tit-for-tat for Syria.” Because two years ago Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied U.S. neo-conservatives their war against Assad. That was in the context of poison gas attacks allegedly commanded from Damascus, attacks that were all faked. They blamed the attacks on Bashar al-Assad in order to push Obama to war. Putin and Lavrov prevented this when they said: “We can get the chemical weapons out of Syria, without you waging war.”

The war in Syria is not really a civil war …

This is no civil war. An American officer and lecturer at a U.S. military academy aptly said: “That’s a war imposed from the outside.”

Could it spread to other neighboring countries and to Europe? Does it really threaten a wildfire?

This threatened two years ago when U.S. American and Russian warships off the Syrian coast in sight of each other crossed paths and the Americans, British and French were preparing a bombing campaign against Syria. A Russian warship could have shot down a bomber located above Syrian territorial waters or at least could have forwarded the flight coordinates to the Syrian anti-aircraft guns. One can assume that the Russians and Syrians have coordinated their systems for a long time. And that would all naturally have brought us into the mess. It was therefore already a highly dangerous situation. Tit for tat along the lines of: “If you make us angry, we will light a small fire on your doorstep” are treacherous. Therefore Lavrov has now called the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry again, so that he might give the real experts on both sides, the Russian and American military, the opportunity to talk to each other, if he wants to avoid collisions. Those are professionals. But for many years Washington has sabotaged any meeting of top military from both sides.

Is it not also a tit for tat, if Putin wants to open a second naval base on the Syrian coast?

That is his only option if he wants to prevent in Syria a scenario like the one that took place in Libya. So far, the U.S. Americans have not properly bombed the Islamic State. Even the American media noticed that. There were questions to the White House and to the Pentagon, of why the almost one-year commitment has achieved nothing. The fishy answer: It is extremely difficult to identify the Islamic State troops and bases. Secondly, we are trying to ensure that no civilians be harmed. I am simply amazed: As if the U.S. in all its wars had ever considered the consequences for civilians!

See also the U.S. drone attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

You’re absolutely right. The real reason for the bloodbath in Syria organized by the West, together with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has nothing to do with democracy or religious fanatics or with human rights. A look at journals of the oil and gas industry would have long ago supplied the real back-story to the conflict in Syria instigated by the West and the Gulf monarchies. But in Europe politicians and the mainstream media have immediately disposed of this information in the memory hole. For if the truth were known, it would immediately expose the alleged humanitarian and democratic concern of the West regarding Syria as the pretext for a highly criminal and murderous operation. In the U.S., in contrast, they are unafraid to discuss openly the real reasons for war in Syria. In the “U.S. Armed Forces Journal” on March 21, 2014, there was an article entitled “You can’t understand the conflict without talking about natural gas” in which it said the same thing in the first paragraph: “Much of the media coverage suggests that the conflict in Syria is a civil war, in which the Alawite (Shia) Bashar al Assad regime is defending itself (and committing atrocities) against Sunni rebel factions (who are also committing atrocities). The real explanation is simpler: it is about money.” The author is Army Maj. Rob Taylor, an instructor at the prestigious Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

In the second paragraph you can read: “In 2009, Qatar proposed to run a natural gas pipeline through Syria and Turkey to Europe. Instead, Assad forged a pact with Iraq and Iran to run a pipeline eastward, allowing those Shia-dominated countries access to the European natural gas market while denying access to Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The latter states, it appears, are now attempting to remove Assad so they can control Syria and run their own pipeline through Turkey.” The two short paragraphs suddenly open up, even though they remain superficial, a very different view of the conflict. The reason for this whole fiasco is obvious: The U.S. has begun another inhuman imperialist adventure that — if it succeeds — would shift the global balance of power.

And because of this adventure we have, or rather, the people of Iraq and Syria now have the murderous Islamic State at their throat?

The so-called Islamic State was not necessarily established by the U.S. intelligence agencies, but nevertheless it is a useful enemy. One has to assume that this was not supported officially, but underhand. Two months ago, a court case was opened in the UK, but it was quickly settled. The accused was a former Islamic State-fighter, a Swede who had dropped out and wanted to settle in London. He was to be prosecuted because he had fought for Islamic State. As the “Guardian” and other newspapers reported and documented with quotations, the defense warned the prosecutor: “If our client is not released, we will demonstrate that MI6 had equipped his group with heavy weapons of all sorts and trained the fighters in their use.”

If the British already do that, you can be absolutely certain that the U.S. Americans do that too. The British don’t do such things on their own. There are many references to training camps in Jordan, where all sorts of fighters — Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and even Islamic State-people — are trained in American arms by American trainers. We must not delude ourselves that Al Nusra or Al Qaeda would fight the Islamic State on their own. They defect to the Islamic State with weapons, knowhow and flags flying. This is not controlled. Intentionally not controlled.

Do you have evidence of this?

There are enough indications, but as yet I cannot submit hard-and-fast evidence. The best we have is a report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Intelligence Service of the Pentagon. It warned as early as 2012 of an Islamic emirate, when the Islamic State did not yet exist. And two, three months ago a DIA report stated that the people who they trained in Jordan and elsewhere are not moderate partners, but extremists who — once they are in Syria — defect to the Islamic State The report includes the sentence: “Unfortunately, at the political level this was desired by the United States, the West, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.” There are reasons why the useful enemy the Islamic State is pampered. And why the U.S. Air Force, which operates in Syrian airspace, is so inefficient. Because of course you wonder also why there are so many reconnaissance flights over Syria. The real [U.S.] enemy is still Assad, not I.S.

This contradicts common sense. Already with the Taliban they experienced that the spirits that you summoned up you now can’t rid yourself of.

With normal human reasoning we can’t understand any of this. Only when you add the oil, the pipelines and the geostrategic shifts focussing on this, the whole thing all of a sudden takes on a completely different slant. It’s not about some terrorist group in a small Middle-Eastern country, it is not about democracy or whatever. It’s about the long-term pushback of Russian influence in Europe and to tie Europe umbilically to America.

Where will Germany stand if the U.S. and Russia are at war on Syrian soil? Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier explained recently that we should support Assad. This has set an entirely new tone.

This is a new tone, indeed. Against the backdrop of the Qatar pipeline Germany would indeed benefit from cheap gas from Qatar, but German industry depends significantly on orders from Russia. Qatar buys relatively little from Germany. Germany would perhaps be the loser if Assad falls. At the very least Germany would not gain much. In this respect, Germany’s interests thus differ slightly from those of the French and the English, who have always had a presence in the Middle East with their big gas and oil companies, as well as the Americans.

Might the strategic partnership between NATO and Russia not have been desirable after all?

It was dishonest from the outset. One need only look at the agendas. What did they discuss at these NATO meetings? It was ridiculous — for example, about pension payments for soldiers, how to calculate them. There was no serious effort to get to know each other better or to find a common denominator in the assessment of the geostrategic positions.

The strategic partnership with Russia thus had no chance?

It never had a chance! Maybe it had a chance in the minds of some Germans.

Egon Bahr for example. [Bahr was a Social Democratic politician who urged rapprochement with the East European socialist countries.]

Yes. Maybe even from some German military.

Is the strategic partnership buried or could it be revived?

It never existed. Perhaps some believed in it in the years of Russian subservience, when Boris Yeltsin was at the helm and -– as people from the apparatus told me — representatives of the West moved freely in the Russian intelligence agencies and were able to look over their colleagues’ shoulders at work. With Putin’s election, that came to an abrupt end. Therefore, Putin is the great enemy, no matter what he does.

And because he has brought the run-down and demoralized Russian army under Yeltsin back into a “regular” state. Is there a military balance between the U.S. and Russia?

Oh no, at the global level not at all. But in the case of a serious conflict with Russia, say over Ukraine or along the Russian western border, the Americans see themselves in a weaker position, in a losing position. Because of the logistics. You can’t achieve everything using the Air Force. And the Russian Air Force is not so bad. Even if Russian pilots do not have the combat experience of the Americans. In addition, NATO and especially the American pilots have always been afraid of the Russian anti-aircraft missiles. They always received a painful lesson when they underestimated them, whether in Korea or Vietnam. Even the Israelis are imploring the Russians not to deliver the S300 or even S400 [anti-aircraft systems] to Iran and Syria. That would put an end to their air supremacy.

Apropos: What is the geostrategic significance of the stand-off over some reefs in the South China Sea?

Some major gas and oil reserves have been discovered in exploratory drilling in the South China Sea and it is believed that there are much more gigantic ones. Despite the current crisis, you cannot push China back into the bottle. In three, four or five years this [crisis] will be over, and China will be the second- largest economy in the world and in terms of production output will remain the largest. This requires energy. Most of this energy China has to import. These are gigantic amounts, which will cost a huge amount of money. Why not exploit the oil and gas at our own doorstep? The deposits at the so-called Continental Shelf, an undersea territory — what an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. China had always claimed this area, and its rights to it have been well respected since the Middle Ages by other neighboring coastal nations, which is documented by contracts or maps from the 15th and 16th century. Today China’s claim to ownership is questioned. The reason is that after the Second World War Japan joined the American orbit and the United States as a “Pacific power” has “rearranged” the whole region against Communist China.

But the Chinese insist: “These are our oil and gas fields. We will happily participate with others, including the other coastal nations, but that is ours.” And in order to emphasize that, they have now built up some reefs, a tremendous amount of sand and stones shipped there, built an airbase and other bases. They are, so it seems, prepared to defend these oil and gas fields militarily, if necessary. There was an American spy plane, in which even a CNN television crew was present, that was forced to change course. Under the threat of escorting it with their own aircraft to China and to force the landing there, they succeeded in turning the aircraft away. Of course, this offended American arrogance tremendously.

In this context we should also discuss Japanese rearmament. Under Shinzo Abe, the Constitution was amended, despite the great protest from the Japanese people. Japan now plans to defend not only its own territory, but also its own interests outside — this is similar to the newly defined 1999 strategic NATO doctrine.

With the infamous out-of-area operations.

That’s an example. The interests explicitly mentioned are access to markets and raw materials, the safety of transport routes, i.e. the Straits of Malacca in the Gulf of Aden, where NATO now also has a presence and German warships pass, as well as — and this is important for the current situation! — military intervention far from home, to stop unwanted refugees. Wolfgang Ischinger, former Secretary at the Foreign Ministry and former ambassador in Washington, demanded in the “Merkur” [daily newspaper in Munich] to deploy the federal armed forces (Bundeswehr) in Syria for the latter. Other politicians have also posed these demands. This is an unspoken fall-back on the new NATO Strategic Concept of 1999.

In your role as “Topaz” you sent some dramatic materials of the highest classification level from Brussels to East Berlin. The absolute highlight was probably the 500-page document MC 161. So much time has gone by — can’t you reveal to us now to whom you owe this spectacular success, from whose hands you got the compilation?

Only when I definitely know if those people who helped me unknowingly are no longer alive, will I perhaps reveal them.

In January 1990 you heard over the headphones “All my ducklings” and knew that the game was over, that you should cease with any spying. Who came up with the idea to use this nursery rhyme for the code?

The lines that I heard were: “Little heads up.” I don’t know whose idea it was. I must ask when I get a chance to.

And then you cleaned everything up?

Yes, cleaned it all up — everything, everything had to go. The codes, cameras, radios, everything. But I really didn’t have many things at home that implicated me. That was how the HVA worked: as little as possible espionage material in your own home. Of course you need the small codebook, but that was no bigger than a thumb and no thicker than two fingernails. I also had a briefcase with a double compartment. It was so cleverly sewn, that if the hiding place had been discovered, I could have said: “Oh, I never saw that at all, that is probably a production error.” Thus, no agent’s suitcase. I had an umbrella and a tennis racket with a hiding place for films and cameras in the handle. That was all expertly constructed. But it had to go.

Oh, it was really all that stuff we read about in cheap spy thrillers?! And now you do not even own a fountain pen with a mini camera?

Naw. I recently bought such a fountain pen from China. But the camera did not work properly. I threw the thing away again (laughs).

Following that day in January 1990 when you were deactivated, did you live in constant fear of arrest? Especially since in that same month a colonel of Department VII of the HVA changed sides, someone who knew your code name.

Colonel Busch knew my pseudonym and reference number. But at that time I didn’t know he had gone over to the BND (Federal Intelligence Service), for which as part of paying his dues he turned over whatever he knew about me. I learned about this only in the course of the trial. Among other things, what came out was that NATO was a sieve and I was practically the Embassy of the Warsaw Pact within NATO. Embassies usually get all the documents.

After Busch had informed the BND, the Attorney General appointed an investigation commission. The State Protection Division of the Federal Criminal Office (Bundeskriminalamt), the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Military Counterintelligence, etc., were set on me. Even inside NATO’s security forces a special commission was formed to catch “Topaz.” But I myself had an excellent source in the security apparatus. This phrase became notorious: “Without our knowing it, Mr. Rupp was always at the table taking part in our deliberations.”

Why didn’t you flee abroad?

Where to? The homeland had broken up, the GDR no longer existed, the Soviet Union even abandoned and expelled [GDR leader Erich] Honecker and the German justice system sent him to jail. It was clear they would do the same to me.

But Hansjoachim Tiedge, the deserter from the Federal Constitutional Protection, was not sent back to Germany by Moscow.

Apparently, the Federal Republic didn’t try so hard to get him. I know that I — that is, “Topaz” — twice was on the agenda of the topics that [then German Chancellor] Helmut Kohl wanted to discuss with Yeltsin personally. He wanted to know who “Topaz” is and how to find him. I know that the then head of the Federal Chancellery, intelligence chief [Bernd] Schmidbauer, inquired at least six to seven times about it in meetings with his Russian counterpart. But the Russians did not know who and where I was. The HVA had protected me well.

Why didn’t you flee to Latin America?

With three children we wanted no part of a nomad’s life. We would have had to continue to move from place to place. The federal government offered a suitcase full of money all over the world for me. That was really like in the cheap spy movies. It has also been said that my handling officer was offered a pile of tax-free money if he would reveal my name. But he preferred to live on his criminally small pension.

Why make such a fuss about a spy whose service organization no longer existed? They could have saved money and stress if your story ended with the historic October 3, 1990, events [annexation of East Germany].

I was, in fact, the most wanted man in those days. The Attorney General spoke of the “biggest search operation of the intelligence services in the postwar period.”

How did the children react to your arrest? The teenagers knew nothing of your double life.

My wife and I were arrested when we were at my mother’s visiting her on her 70th birthday. With one blow, the children were without father and mother. I do not know how they reacted at that moment. But they are on our side. And the other day they said, solemnly, that they were proud of us. What more could you want? Then the bad times become just a bad dream.

Translation by WW managing editor John Catalinotto. Translation reviewed by Susanne Schuster.