Operation RYAN: The Man Without a Face in an Elusive Program

The countries of NATO and Warsaw Pact from 1949 to 1990 (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

As the head of the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance (Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung) Markus Wolf had a prominent role behind the Iron Curtain. Although he was number two in the Stasi (the first one was Erich Mielke), “the man without a face” made numerous moves that made him one of the invisible pillars of the Iron Curtain, especially thanks to his foreign intelligence operations.

Markus Wolf (1923 – 2006) – Known in the West as “the man without a face”
(Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

The best proof of his power was penetrating the political, business and other circles with spies. Wolf was very elusive. Most people didn’t know what he looked like until 1978, when Säpo, Sweden’s National Security Service, took a photo of him during his visit to Stockholm. There are also rumors that he was identified by CIA elements in 1959, from the photos of the Nuremberg trials.

Haunting Experience and the New Operation

During the early 80s, the world was again on the brink. The diplomatic relations between the East and the West were very unstable. There were a few factors. The Soviets believed the United States was going to start a nuclear attack. A personal element was present, too.

Cold War Europe military alliances (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yury Andropov was haunted by the events in Hungary in the 1950s and how the once powerful Communist state began to crumble. Therefore, he justified operation RYAN, or Raketno Yadernoe Napadenie (Nuclear Missile Attack). The whole purpose of the operation was to collect intelligence to prevent a possible attack. In other words, the project was a sort of intelligence operation among the countries of the Iron Curtain, primarily the (former) Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic as their close ally. The program was initiated in May 1981.

Highly Confidential Meeting

Diplomacy was everything. In August 1984, Markus Wolf met Major General Shapkin in order to discuss the issues of the RYAN operation. The meeting confirmed the good international relations between the USSR and the German Democratic Republic. A highly confidential document from the meeting states “it must be our main priority to identify the full potential of fraternal intelligence services pertaining to detect (Western) political decision-making processes for a surprise nuclear attack.” So, “fast, effective, and concealed signal links and channels of information” were something that needed to be applied. In addition, the exchange of information between the KGB and HVA about the means and methods available was crucial.

Agents, Tech and Good International Relations

There were two aspects the RYAN Program emphasized and both of them regarded good international relations between the USSR and the German Democratic Republic. First of all, the good network of agents was one of the pillars of the Program. It was agreed both countries will set the priorities regarding that aspect. The second important thing was the technology. The USSR, whose technology was more advanced, helped the GDR in that field. The newly developed concept, “RITM” (rhythm) had a purpose to secure the encrypted communication with the agents, especially on problems of RYAN. Pershing II nuclear-armed missiles and the Strategic Defense Initiative made the situation with RYAN more serious. The Soviets founded a new division inside the First Directorate of the KGB, dedicated exclusively to RYAN. Markus Wolf and KGB experts wanted to create a system that will detect early the potential attack.

The RYAN Program continued throughout the whole decade. Markus Wolf, “a man without a face” collaborated with the Soviets in an elusive operation until 1989 when this operation ceased to be maintained.

Ivana Tucak

Source: “Deputy Minister Markus Wolf, Stasi Note on Meeting with KGB Experts on the RYAN Problem, 14 to 18 August 1984,” August 24, 1984, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU), MfS, ZAIG 5384, pp. 1-16. Translated from German for CWIHP by Bernd Schaefer. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/115721

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