In 1962, you were secretly sent to Cuba as part of a missile forces division. Tell us about your impressions. How did you see the Cuban crisis then? How did Operation Anadyr go? Were you scared?
In 1962, the Soviet leadership approved Operation Anadyr in which the Soviet Armed Forces deployed Soviet troops with nuclear weapons on Cuba in order to prevent a US aggression against the Republic of Cuba. The decision was taken after a team of mercenaries landed in Cuba in 1961. The team consisted of more than 1,500 Cuban counterrevolutionary emigrants. Their landing was supported by unmarked American aircraft which dropped bombs on the island. Within three days the revolutionary forces of Cuba managed to defeat the main members of the team and captured some of them with the support of Soviet advisors who were there already.
On April 29, 1961, after John Kennedy assumed the post of the president, the US decided to conduct Operation Mongoose. Their aim was to place their armed forces on the island of Cuba and overthrow the Fidel Castro government. In response, the USSR decided to launch Operation Anadyr.
At the same time, Nikita Khrushchev was sure that only nuclear missiles could defend Cuba from an American military aggression. That’s how he explained it in his memoirs.
On May 20, 1962, the USSR Defense Council held a meeting where Khrushchev voiced his decision to deploy Soviet troops with nuclear weapons on Cuba. The decision was taken after the US had deployed medium-range ballistic missiles Jupiter and Thor near the borders of the USSR, in Turkey and Italy. But first of all, this decision was supposed to prevent an American aggression against Cuba, which became an ally of the USSR.
Khrushchev couldn’t let our ally be suppressed by an US aggression. At the same time, he wanted to prevent the defeat of Cuba by the US troops and to avoid a war with the US.
The 51st missile division in Cuba was a dedicated unit as part of the Soviet armed forces on Cuba. I served in one of its regiments. Part of it was located in Plunge, a small town in Lithuania.
We were supposed to undergo training and take part in military drills in a remote area. We did not know that we would go to Cuba. Our training lasted for two months and after that our regiment was sent to Cuba.
Previously other troops, such as motorized rifle regiments and air defense teams, were sent there. Their aim was to ensure protection and defense of our division. At first we came to Sevastopol, then our regiment of two missile battalions went to the ship Kimovsk and stayed there with R-12 missiles.
On August 14, we got dressed in civilian clothes. The officers put their uniforms in suitcases and personnel put it in duffel bags, and it made it all look fishy. What kind of exercises were these? What was all this secrecy about? We became even more suspicious after we were sent to sleep in the so called tweendeck space in the ship’s lower part. There were bunk beds.
Our ship unloaded in the Port of Casilda, in the Caribbean Sea. We transported military equipment at night so that we do not attract any attention.
It was difficult to move through small Cuban settlements because of the missile equipment’s size. In some areas we had to remove fences. Soon after our arrival, we started to get our position ready. It lasted for three days. At first we wanted to dig trenches since many of officers took part in the Second World War, so they were familiar with that tactic. But when we tried to do it we realized that it was almost impossible. In those places where we managed to do it, we found groundwater. Thus, we decided to set up tents. The battalion commander arrived three days later. He said: “We will stay here for long. Another shift will come in two years.”
American troops were located in Turkey, Britain and other countries on a regular basis. That’s why we moved our troops to Cuba.
Our deployment was supposed to remain classified until Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Cuba in November. He was supposed to announce to the whole world that we were here, that we had missiles and that it was the Soviet answer to the deployment of US missiles in Turkey, Italy and other countries.
In other words, you presence was supposed to remain classified for almost three months?
Yes. We came there in the middle of August. Khrushchev had to announce our presence there after his speech at the UN General Assembly. We realized that it would take a long time.
Were you scared?
It wasn’t scary then. Since our location was classified, we did all the engineering works with the help of pickaxe, shovel and scrap, as we couldn’t blow the earth. That is why it took us longer to settle down. The missiles were kept in special 8U12 tents which offered some space for equipment. I often worked there with our technicians. It took us until late October to check seven missiles despite the fact that we worked almost 16 hours a day or even more. We set up a special commission at the level of the regiment and battalion to which I was a member.
We trained our military to use this equipment on combat duty. Today the rules are just the same – before combat duty you need to pass training and certification.
On October 14 the US placed Cuba under blockade and things got even tougher. We had to work at night to avoid being spotted. Fidel Castro sent part of the troops from Havana to provide cover for us. We were also backed by our anti-aircraft missile systems which arrived in Cuba earlier, together with motorized rifle squads.
The crisis broke out on October 27. This day is known as “Black Saturday”.
A U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down to prevent the Americans from discovering Soviet missile on Cuba, an incident similar to what happened in Yekaterinburg in 1961. The pilot bailed out but died anyway. The F-4 fighter was also shot down. Washington was quick to take decisions. The military insisted on an invasion, they were well prepared for it. Earlier, in May, they conducted large-scale military exercises in the Caribbean Sea with landing operations. Actually in October they had a major grouping on standby, including the navy and air force.
Thank God, common political sense prevailed. Khrushchev and Kennedy were able to agree and avoid a war that seemed inevitable.
On October 28, our commander was summoned to the HQ located in Havana. He returned to us and announced that the Defense Minister ordered us to dismantle all the positions by October 31 and get the equipment ready for redeployment back to the Soviet Union.
Certainly, we sighed with relief. We dismantled our positions quickly with the help of the motorized rifle team which had a specially adapted tank and other engineering equipment. I started to get the ammunition ready for the move since we received the command to remove the missiles from Cuba by November 10.
On November 2, we left our positions. That time we didn’t hide our cargo and carried it at daytime. We were accompanied by Cubans who blocked the roads so that we could move to the port quicker.
The ship Leninsky Komsomol awaited us in the port. It had to be unloaded and after that loaded again. We had to wait for three days. On November 5 we started loading the missile onto the ship. The missile equipment was in the cargo holds and the missiles were already on the open deck so that Americans could inspect them. At first they insisted that control be exercised at the loading sites but our commanders did not agree with that. They said that they could check us after our departure. When we reached the high seas, the Americans told us to remove the canvas tarpaulins so that they could see the missiles. But in addition to the tents the missiles were covered with special watertight material. And the US demanded to remove it, too. The captains did some negotiating. Our military commander said that we wouldn’t do it since we do not have such an order. We were surrounded by US torpedo-boat destroyers. Onboard there were teams, equipped with special vests, on combat alert ready to board our ships.
Then our commander said: “Get the guns ready! I won’t allow my ship to be seized.” He did not fear anything. We knew we were outnumbered, we would simply be sunk. However, we didn’t plan to give up without a fight.
After two hours of intensive negotiations we were ordered to remove the watertight materials. The US was afraid that under that material we were transporting wooden models while the missiles were left in Cuba. However, removing the watertight material meant we would show them the numbers on missiles and other ID info that could help them figure out the release year and the plant that produced them.
I asked boatswain: “Do you have green paint?” He said that he had blue and white. Finally, I personally painted the ID info on the missiles with the white paint to prevent the Americans from seeing the numbers. They couldn’t figure out what I was doing. They were watching me closely. After they looked at the missiles, they thanked us and accompanied us from a distance so that we didn’t go back.
From Gibraltar we were accompanied by other ships. They left us as we approached the Black Sea. We arrived in the Port of Nikolayev and unloaded the missiles. After that I was free. By the way, I left for Cuba as a lieutenant, and returned as a senior lieutenant. Army General Pliev personally awarded us in Cuba before our departure, in the presence of Fidel Castro.
You personally met with Fidel Castro. What impression did he make on you?
He was young enough and energetic. He always spoke without any crib notes. He could speak for two or three hours. He had a huge charisma and good speaking abilities. He was a well-educated and self-confident man. He was not afraid or ashamed of anything and openly expressed his disapproval of Khrushchev’s agreement with the Americans on the withdrawal of our troops. He had learned about this decision after its approval. Fidel was offended since it was he who gave us permission to enter.
As a result, Mikoyan had to come and settle the conflict. Fidel did not want to talk to him for two days. However, Anastas Mikoyan had a talent for communication.
Moreover, he had been in Cuba before. He had a good relationship with Fidel that’s why he was sent to Cuba. Later Fidel confessed: “Cuba would have failed without you. The Soviet Union always helped us. Your military were ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Cuban people”.
What events from your career are the most remarkable for you? Is it your experience in Cuba or something else?
Certainly, the events in Cuba were remarkable. I also remember my intense service in the fall of 1976, when my career changed its course. At that time I was working at the HQ. In the summer the chief staff of the strategic missile force conducted an inspection. It was when I apparently drew the attention of someone from the top. In the autumn, I was sent for retraining to be able to operate Pioneer missiles. An officer in the command and control department quit precisely at that time and I had to take his place. A month later, when I came back I received an order on my appointment to the command and control department of the chief staff of the strategic missile forces in charge of medium-range missile systems.
The Soviet army was deploying the Pioneer missiles back then, and I had about 200 days of business trips in the year. What followed were four busy years.
I also remember 1981, when I was sent to the General Staff academy. Then I learned more about other branches of the Armed Forces. Apart from training sessions, the Academy of the General Staff offered field visits to the troops’ locations. I visited ground forces, anti-aircraft defense and even the navy, including submarines. That experience came handy when I joined the executive office of the Russian Security Council where I dealt with organizational issues of the military. I was first appointed deputy chief of the command and control department, and then I became its chief. Then, in 1994, I became head of the chief staff, and later first deputy commander-in-chief of the missile forces. I served in this position for two and a half years until I was promoted to the President’s executive office.
Among your research interests are matters of the country’s strategic security. Does Russia do everything possible for it or are there still aspects that require additional focus?
I don’t think it would be fair to say that we have taken every step possible. Certain measures are being undertaken, others don’t – for a number of reasons, including financial ones. There is also an issue of qualification. It is no secret that when Anatoly Serdyukov was Defense Minister, he didn’t pay enough attention to the experts’ opinion. He made many mistakes and Chief of the General Staff Makarov didn’t warn him about that. Anyway, it was difficult to warn him about anything. He could say: “Anyone who disagrees with my decisions can quit.” By the way, after one of such conversations the commander of the Strategic Missile Forces Shvalchenko did just that. Some of Serdyukov’s wrongs have not been mended even today. The brigades are being transformed back into divisions, army HQs are set up again, and so on.
I approve the foreign policy conducted by Russia. Russia has been a strong defender of its interests and does a lot to be on par with its counterparts. But military power alone is not enough for strategic security. Russia needs to have a strong economy.
And due to subjective factors we have objective problems in this regard. However, our economy should rapidly grow thanks to our domestic resources. We need to identify priority areas and other sectors will catch up.
In the 1990s, you participated in negotiations on the reduction of nuclear weapons. Do you think it is possible to have a nuclear-free world one day?
Before we start talking about such a vision, the world needs to change. Our attitudes must change. This will pave the way for an environment where it will be possible for the world to renounce nuclear weapons, which as we know have an enormous destructive power. The world can be destroyed by such power and it is considered as a threat. However, nuclear weapons also have an upside in a way.
Possession of nuclear weapons keeps the leading powers from direct armed conflict.
Anyway, it is a decision that needs to be approached on a step by step basis. If we manage to find consensus, a formula that would ensure security for every stakeholder, then we may think about complete destruction of nuclear weapons.
There was a time when we reduced our nuclear arsenals according to treaties. However, I may say that it is hardly possible that there will be another agreement on nuclear weapons between Russia and the US.
You also were engaged in scientific research along with your military career. What was your area of interest? Did military skills help you in your scientific career?
I got interested in science during my studies at the General Staff Academy. My lecturers considered the subject of my diploma as a most promising one worth a PhD degree. I even passed a postgraduate exam in the German language. After graduation, I was appointed head of the department of operational training and military and scientific work. From then on, research became not only my passion but also my duty. Since 1984, I have heavily been involved in science. I had some publications on a secret topic including in classified military scientific journals. I also took part in R&D. That was when I did my PhD.
Apparently, its subject is still classified, right?
Sure. But in general, it deals with methods for the optimal choice of missile deployment areas. This method is still used to this day. I have more than a hundred scientific articles, 60 of them are available in the public domain.
Currently you are a professor at the Faculty of World Politics at the Institute for US and Canadia Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. What do you like most in this job?
It is an interesting subject, Security and Arms Control. We are studying arms treaties, the Open Skies agreement, the Vienna Document and so on. This is a one semester course for fourth-year students. At the end we have a small exam. It is not the most important subject, but there are still some students who want to deal with it as part of their future career. It is also taught at MGIMO, but on a smaller scale. I have also helped my colleagues from the Faculty of World Politics at Moscow State University, they have it on their curriculum but as an optional course only. Nevertheless, there is demand for specialists in this area. Besides, I really like to teach young people.
Do you share your amazing experience with the younger generation?
Of course. Moreover, while telling them a story about a certain political treaty, I explain how it was implemented, what positions each of the parties had before it was signed and how Soviet Union or Russia continuously came to the final wording of the treaty. I think such stories are more interesting than dry facts. It is always more interesting to listen to such stories told by those who were a witness.
Students must be excited…
Honestly, those young people who are interested in all that are indeed intrigued. Though there are some who don’t pay their attention to that. I think it’s okay. I understand that everyone has different interests. Yet each year I have a few graduate students who want to take up this subject as their future profession.