[L]ike every genuine paranoiac, Andropov set out to find the evidence to confirm his fears.
Operation RYAN (an acronym for Raketno-Yadernoye Napadeniye, Russian for Nuclear Missile Attack) was the biggest peacetime Soviet intelligence operation ever launched. To his stunned KGB audience, with the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, alongside him, Andropov announced that the US and NATO were ‘actively preparing for nuclear war’. The task of the KGB was to find signs that this attack might be imminent and provide early warning, so that the Soviet Union was not taken by surprise. By implication, if proof of an impending attack could be found, then the Soviet Union could itself launch a pre-emptive strike. Andropov’s experience in suppressing liberty in Soviet satellite states had convinced him that the best method of defence was attack. Fear of a first strike threatened to provoke a first strike.
Operation RYAN was born in Andropov’s fevered imagination. It grew steadily, metastasizing into an intelligence obsession within the KGB and GRU (military intelligence), consuming thousands of man-hours and helping to ratchet up tension between the superpowers to terrifying levels. RYAN even had its own imperative motto: “Ne Prozerot! — Don’t Miss It!’ In November 1981 the first RYAN directives were dispatched to KGB field stations in the US, Western Europe, Japan and Third World countries. In early 1982 all rezidenturas were instructed to make RYAN a top priority. By the time Gordievsky arrived in London, the operation had already acquired a self-propelling momentum. But it was based on a profound misapprehension. America was not preparing a first strike. The KGB hunted high and low for evidence of the planned attack, but as MI5’s authorized history observes: ‘No such plans existed.’
In launching Operation RYAN, Andropov broke the first rule of intelligence: never ask for confirmation of something you already believe.
Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, New York, 2018