Last week, Russian and Western publications devoted columns to reliving the "three days which rocked the world" and brought down the Soviet empire, culminating in the ouster of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev exactly 20 years ago.
The plot hatched by KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov to depose President Gorbachev took place in three fateful days in August from the 19th to the 21st. It succeeded in one sense – Gorbachev was removed – but had two consequences which the conspirators failed to predict: the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the rise of a new star in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin.
Excerpts from DEBKA's history of world intelligence
In 1988 and 1989, the last two years of Afghanistan War, the FBI and the CIA developed an advanced form of the PROMIS software program to spot Soviet penetration agents in American intelligence agencies. PROMIS was initiated in the seventies to break into any computer in support of law enforcement, to be enhanced later for intelligence interception. The advanced version was run only twice by different teams. The first test, codenamed PLAY ACTOR, was run in 1988 and turned up 29 names of potential Soviet moles; the second was codenamed SKYLIGHT and, when applied in 1989, found the total had jumped to 198 in the space of one year.
One name popped up on both lists: Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs.
The heads of the CIA were not surprised. They had known of the Egyptian’s links with the KGB and made no bones about turning them to good use between mid-1988 and August 1991 for liaison missions with an FCD faction in Yasenevo that was plotting to depose Mikhail Gorbachev. The conspiracy was led by FCD chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov.
Enter Aldrich Ames
The mission came about after Aldrich Ames, the CIA's Counterintelligence Branch Chief for Soviet Operations, tipped off the new Director of Central Intelligence Robert M. Gates in the winter of 1987 to a tentative conspiracy blowing up in Moscow.
(Ames was later sensationally exposed as a Russian mole and is serving a life sentence. Gates went on to become a two-term Defense Secretary.)
Kryuchkov had given Ames word of the conspiracy in order to test the water in Washington for a possible anti-Gorbachev coup.
Gates, at 43 the youngest director in CIA history, did not at first rate the plot’s scoring potential very high but thought it worth keeping an eye on. Ames proposed using Boutros-Ghali as the CIA’s go-between with the cabal. Employing an Egyptian minister to keep the CIA’s finger on the KGB pulse was admittedly strange, but Ames recommended Ghali for his first-rate connections in Moscow Center, including close friendships with the KGB's lead-conspirators.
Furthermore, because he was a foreigner, the CIA could at any time disown responsibility for his activities.
The CIA codenamed the Ghali mission the Alpha Program. It gained urgency when it began to look as though the Soviet political system was careering out of control under the pressures of Gorbachev’s rapid democratic reforms and the hopeless Afghanistan campaign which was draining Soviet economic resources and enfeebling its army.
Ames, in obedience to his FCD handlers, did everything to foster this impression. Suggestions were bruited about that the Soviet Union, lacking a firm hand in the Kremlin, could well sink into nuclear as well as economic anarchy and fall prey to irresponsible elements.
The Qaddafi libel against Gorbachev
One of the more hair-raising rumors the plotters planted in the Western press to discredit Gorbachev was that he had actually agreed to share up-to-date Soviet spy satellite data with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to help the latter through his frequent confrontations with the United States.
The great reformer in the Kremlin, who worked tirelessly to promote friendly ties with the West, was painted in the false colors of a rabid anti-American who cared nothing for his country’s recovery and was unscrupulous enough to ally himself with the most outrageous international pariah for self-aggrandizement.
Gates began to take the anti-Gorbachev conspiracy more seriously when, in August 1988, its ringleader, Kryuchkov, the KGB's First Chief Directorate chief for fourteen years, succeeded Viktor Chebrikov as KGB director.
The CIA chief was further impressed by the report Ames brought from Boutros-Ghali that the plotters had won over Red Army commanders and heads of the Kremlin's presidential guard. This piece of intelligence enhanced the Egyptian diplomat's reputation in Langley to the degree that CIA heads set aside the PLAY ACTOR and SKYLIGHT findings on his clandestine anti-American activities.
The Ames-Ghali undercover intrigue achieved the almost unthinkable: It manipulated the CIA into supporting a conspiracy to restore KGB-led Communist hardliners to power and remove a pro-democracy president.
The situation in Moscow began to appear so volatile that CIA heads started thinking that a reversion to the old days might be the lesser evil. Some may also have been influenced by the question swirling round among US intelligence insiders: What employment would remain for the CIA, if the Soviet Union crashed as a superpower and the Agency’s arch foe, the KGB, dropped into oblivion?
A coup which misfired
In July 1991, Aldrich Ames launched one of his artful information distortion campaigns. Suddenly, the US media blossomed with prominent articles and cover stories presenting a previously skeptical President George H. W. Bush as an ardent Gorbachev fan. The idea was to put Gorbachev off guard by persuading him that US presidential backing was solid enough to dispel any fears he might entertain about internal conspiracies. Even if a coup were staged, he would believe himself strong enough to turn it around and consolidate his grip on power.
On August 19, 1991, the conspirators struck.
The putsch was led by Kryuschkev's KGB faction, known formally as the State Committee on the State of Emergency. Other members were Russian Defense Minister Dimitri Yazov, Gorbachev’s chief national security adviser Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the head of the Kremlin Presidential Guard Lt Gen. Yuri Plehanov, and deputy KGB chief Vladimir Grushko.
In the three days “that shook the world”, the coup leaders claimed to have controlled the government in Moscow. Gorbachev, who was absent on holiday at his Crimean summer home in Foros, was placed under arrest for those three days and the presidential briefcase containing secret Soviet missile launch codes was taken from him.
On the night of August 23, US armed forces were placed on a worldwide nuclear alert which White House spokesmen then played down as a “pre-alert.”
Boris Yeltsin uses the coup to climb to the top
What the coup leaders failed to take into account was rogue action by an unpredictable party: Boris Yeltsin, newly elected on July 10 as President of the Russian republic. He took his life in his hands when he recklessly clambered atop a tank to rally the crowds against the coup.
The popular response to his grandstand gesture was enthusiastic. The people continued to cheer him on when he barricaded himself and his followers in the Russian Parliament building and called a general strike. Yeltsin's theatrical performance caught the conspirators unawares. They were completely floored by the surge of fist-brandishing protesters through the streets of Moscow and Leningrad, spearheaded by young people furiously opposed to the restoration of the ancien regime.
On August 21, after the army stood idly by for three days without touching the demonstrators or Boris Yeltsin, the coup leaders called it a day.
KGB Chief Kryuchkov was dismissed with thirteen other conspirators, eleven protesting vociferously that Gorbachev had known about the putsch. This he strenuously denied. A Communist Party deputy, Dimitry Stepanov, testified that Gorbachev had said before flying off on holiday. “Don’t worry. Everything is alright. We are imposing a state of emergency.”
After a while, all the plotters were released, though never prosecuted or tried for treason.
The Soviet empire was history, but Yeltsin put the brakes on rapprochement with the West, the historical process which his predecessor Gorbachev had set in train.