Many times during the Cold War the world was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. This is one of those stories.
Usually these were periods of heightened tension between the two superpowers. However, there is a relatively unknown story, which was revealed in the 1990s. According to the protagonists, in the autumn of 1983 the actions of a Soviet officer prevented the Soviet leadership from launching a nuclear attack on the United States.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union had intercontinental ballistic missiles at their disposal, which could carry multiple nuclear warheads. Thus, both superpowers had the ability to "push a button" to bring nuclear destruction to the enemy. However, in order to protect themselves, they had developed early warning systems, which combined signals from radar stations and satellites.
In 1982, the Soviet early warning system, called Oko, was completed. The system consisted of at least four spy satellites, which could detect missiles fired from the West. In this way, the Soviets would be able to launch their own nuclear missiles in retaliation for a possible American attack. The USA had a similar system called Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. Thus, both superpowers followed the M.A.D (Mutual Assured Destruction) doctrine, according to which the observation stations of each superpower had to detect as soon as possible the launch of intercontinental missiles by the enemy, so that there was sufficient time to launch a counterattack. In this way, the destruction of both was ensured with global consequences and no first-strike would remain unanswered.
At the end of September 1983, relations between the two superpowers were strained as just three weeks ago the Soviets shot down a South Korean passenger plane. Among the 296 victims were several American citizens, including a member of the US Congress (Larry McDonald). A few months earlier, US President Ronald Reagan had announced his intent to develop the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) program, also known as Star Wars, which the United States aspired to shield from any ballistic attack, while their own nuclear arsenal would remain unaffected. In addition, the NATO exercise “Able Archer 83” was soon launched. The Soviet counterintelligence had serious indications that the exercise was a cover for the United States to carry out the first nuclear strike. The Soviet leadership had formed the impression that a nuclear attack was imminent.
On September 26, Stanislav Petrov, lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Command, takes over as Oko's duty officer. His duties included monitoring satellite signals and providing immediate information to his superiors on the possibility of US missile launches. In such a case, the Soviets had a few minutes to counter-launch their own missiles.
Shortly after midnight, computers report that an intercontinental ballistic missile is being fired from the United States to the USSR. Petrov recounts in an interview with the BBC: “Suddenly my screen turned red. The siren started screaming so loud that it woke up the dead”
Petrov believes this is a system error, as he reasonably thinks that a nuclear attack would involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches. The Soviets themselves know that Oko has reliability issues. However, a little later, the system shows four more launches from US soil. Petrov again suspects a malfunction and does not notify his superiors, but has no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. In a later interview with the Washington Post he remembers:
“For 15 seconds we were motionless and shocked. I had a premonition, I didn't want to be wrong. I made my decision and that was it.”
Eventually, as it turned out, this was another false indication of Oko, which, could have had dramatic results if Petrov had followed procedure. Petrov's action were not recognized by the Soviet leadership, nor was he punished for his initiative.
There were three reasons why Petrov considered it a false alarm. At first, the Soviets believed that the Americans would launch their entire arsenal at once, not just five missiles, that would be silly and pointless. In addition, Oko was a relatively new system and Petrov himself considered it a bit unreliable. Finally, even several minutes after the first signal, they did not receive any confirmation from the ground radars.
The story came to light after the end of the Cold War, and speculation began about what would have happened if Petrov had believed that the United States was indeed launching an attack. The first view, expressed mainly by Russian diplomacy, is that the decision to use nuclear weapons en masse in both the USSR and the United States does not depend on one person. Various confirmation channels are required to verify a launch (terrestrial radar and observation stations, intelligence information, etc).
However, there is another view, according to which the protocol may not have been followed in this case. US-Soviet relations had deteriorated to such an extent that the entire system, not only the Kremlin, not only the KGB but the entire Soviet political thought, expected such an attack and was ready for immediate retaliation. Cold War analyst Bruce Blair believes that humanity has been closer to nuclear disaster than ever before, because the Soviets considered the United States was not only preparing to strike first (see “Able Archer 83”) but also had a president (Ronald Reagan) willing to do it.
This view is also supported by the Russians. Oleg Kalugin, a senior KGB official who knew Andropov well, points out the general secretary's deep lack of confidence in the Americans. In fact, the assumption that “the Americans will attack sooner or later” prevailed in the upper echelons of the Soviet leadership:
If a launch detection report from Petrov had been forwarded to the leadership, it is quite possible that it would be considered that a counter-launch order would have been issued.
In the days that followed, Petrov informed his superiors about the incident. However, while initially the commander of the Air Defense Command praised Petrov and promised him a reward (according to Petrov), he later criticized him for not recording the incident properly. Petrov himself claims that the story was buried because otherwise those involved in the development of the system would have to be punished. He was then transferred to less sensitive duties and retired early after suffering a nervous breakdown.
In January 2006, Petrov was honored by the United Nations for his actions. On the same day, Russia's UN Permanent Mission issued a statement saying that a single person's report could not trigger a nuclear conflict.
Petrov himself believes he has done nothing special and does not see himself as a hero. In a documentary he states:
“I just did my job. I was the right person at the right time. That's all”