Oops! ... They did it again: How the CIA blew up a Russian gas pipeline in 1982

Updated: Oct 11

In the summer of 1982, the U.S. foreign intelligence agency, the CIA, was jubilant over one of its most successful operations since the agency's inception.

Soviet gas pipeline explosion 1982

First, Washington had been put on alert when the space surveillance facility North American Air Defense Command registered a huge explosion in Siberia that could be seen as far away as space. First guess: Perhaps the Russians' test of a new superweapon.

But Langley knew better long ago and had already popped the champagne.

What was there to celebrate? The U.S. had succeeded in destroying an important and financially lucrative Siberian gas pipeline via an act of sabotage. William L. Casey's CIA agents had done a great job.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote in 2006 :

"The strength of the shock suggested a nuclear explosion, but the satellites had not been able to detect an electromagnetic pulse that accompanies such explosions."

For well over twenty years, the grass had grown over this secret CIA operation until Thomas Reed, a former presidential security advisor, felt in 2004 that it was time to report on this major agency success in his book At the Abyss. An Insider's History of the Cold War.

At that time, however, the U.S. had not only dealt a serious blow to the "evil empire," as President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union from 1983 onward, they had also directly hit their European partners, who, in parallel, had just entered the European-Soviet gas business in a big way under German leadership and to the chagrin of the U.S. administration.

The explosion itself could not have been better conceived by James Bond screenwriters: The CIA had learned from a spy in Moscow what American computer-controlled special equipment the Soviets were interested in. In fact, arrangements were made for the Russians to obtain the desired hardware and software. The U.S. intelligence services faked a deal through a Canadian company, which also delivered.

The coup was as perfidious as it was intelligent, and it was devised at the highest intelligence level, as the NZZ reported:


"However, the software had been modified in such a way that after a few weeks it was controlling the speeds of the turbines, the working of the pumps, the movements of the valves in a way that eventually led to the explosion."

In this context, the rapid decline of technological progress in the USSR is astonishing, as the USSR was still able to keep up with the development of computer technology and automation in the 1960s.

But let's go back to the blown-up gas pipeline, or rather, the one that blew itself up thanks to technical manipulation. How did the joint gas deals between the EU/Germany and the Soviet Union come about?

Events came to a head in the fall of 1981, when the West felt threatened by the deployment of new Soviet medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe. The plans of the NATO double decision were accompanied in the West, and here especially in Germany, by large peace demonstrations in October 1981, which spoke out against the stationing of further nuclear weapons on German soil. The widow of Martin Luther King came and on one of the stages Harry Belafonte sang.

A month later, Soviet Party and government leader Leonid Brezhnev traveled to Bonn. And during this state visit, "the largest East-West industrial agreement of all time" was concluded in Essen. Contracts that were to last until 2009 agreed to "the construction of pipelines and compressor stations worth 20 billion marks and the delivery of 40 billion cubic meters of Siberian natural gas annually worth 16 billion marks - 400 billion marks in 25 years."

But the spectacular deal did not please everyone: First, America's hardliners sounded the alarm; Caspar Weinberger, then Minister of Defense, was furious on behalf of his government about this German détente diplomacy.

The Americans were helped by the declaration of martial law in Poland, the gas and pipe agreement was disavowed overnight, and the West Germans, as Der Spiegel wrote at the time, had to let themselves be blackened by the United States as spoilers of Western military power.

But this remarkable thriller toward an explosive countdown went even further:

In January 1982, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt traveled to the U.S. and had to be told personally how negatively his American friends viewed the gas/tube deal. On the surface, the Americans feared that high-quality Western technology would be installed that could be cannibalized by the Russians and used for military purposes.

More than twenty years later, the world learned via Thomas Reed's tell-all book what the U.S. was actually up to at the time. Spiegel reported again:

"In December, the U.S. government consequently issued tougher embargo regulations against the Soviets. The license to supply 200 pipe-laying machines made by the U.S. company Caterpillar was withdrawn. Electrical multinational General Electric (GE) was banned from supplying high-value gas turbine parts to European manufacturers of pipeline compressor equipment."

And toward West Germany, negative voices from the U.S. were increasing at the time. For example, Democratic Senator John Stennis found the pipeline "extremely frightening," and Republican Senator William Cohen believed that the Germans were making a "terrible mistake" that "could eventually cost West Germany its independence."

But it gets better: a congressional report was available in February 1982 that found that Western technology and Western loans were reaching the USSR via the Europe detour.

The report then concluded, "Our businessmen are being squeezed out of the Eastern market."

For the time being, however, Germany had no intention of folding. Just one day after the report appeared, Schmidt's cabinet assured itself that it would stick to this deal of the century with the Soviet Union.

The confrontation was on. Gerhard Baum, then Minister of the Interior, will report much later that they had assured each other in Bonn that even the most vehement attacks would not change the execution of the billion-euro deal.

Lambsdorff, Genscher - the ministers flew to the USA one after the other in order to somehow still appease on the matter. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, however, only told his German counterpart about the gas deal: "We've always been against it - our concerns continue."

Senator Ted Stevens even threatened Germany with withdrawing its 337,000 U.S. troops from Europe and, referring to the gas deal and his boys at the sites, declared:

"If they can cut off our power, hell, it's high time to get out of there."

As a reminder, we are in the early 1980s. And the senator adds a candy on top, as Der Spiegel wrote down at the time:

"If, on the other hand, the Europeans were to abandon their century deal on Siberian gas, Stevens beckoned, they could immediately get replacement supplies from another cold zone of the world - Alaska, the senator's home state. That gas would not need a pipeline; it could be shipped to Europe in liquefied natural gas submarines, and those boats could be built at ailing German shipyards."

Spiegel Investigative Editor Werner Meyer-Larsen wondered in March 1982:

"After years of patient watching, what suddenly strikes the Americans as so skewed that they would have preferred to use force to intervene in signed treaties? What drives them to see a distant gas pipeline as interfering with the NATO alliance? The Siberian gas treaty is at least the biggest East-West deal ever set in motion, and the biggest economic agreement concluded between the private and state capitalist worlds."

The plan was to build a six-lane pipeline to transport natural gas from northern Siberia to Western Europe. The Russian president had promised to supply about thirty percent of Europe's natural gas needs from 1985 onward.

The only problem was that it was not feasible for the Soviet Union to build the pipelines; European companies were to take care of this and be paid for it in gas. Naturally, these pipelines then also supplied Russia's industry with the coveted energy raw material.

In his brilliant summary of 1982, Werner Meyer-Larsen lets a congressman tell the story:

"The pipeline, according to the Germans, would make it less likely that the Russians 'will drop a nuclear bomb on Düsseldorf or send their tanks into the North German Plain,' he let slip."

In March 1982, Der Spiegel had written the story of a gigantic Soviet-German gas deal. A few months later, it exploded in two places: In Siberia, a gigantic fireball shone into space, and in the Oval Office and the Pentagon, the champagne corks popped.

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