Reports of the death of Stanislav Petrov hit the news yesterday. For a man whose decision might very well have saved the planet from nuclear annihilation, it is kind of sad that the reports were four months late. Mr. Petrov died in May, but the news did not reach the press at that time.
34 years ago, on September 26th of 1983, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow, which was the command center of the Soviet early warning satellites, code-named Oko.
It was a difficult and very tense time. The USSR had shot down by mistake the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1st of 1983. The US Air force was using new tactics to test USSR defenses with swarms of planes heading directly towards USSR and changing course at the last-minute. A new missile, Pershing II, was almost fielded and the USSR had no defense for it. But most important was the perception the Russians had of Ronald Reagan as a man so starkly anticommunist and unhinged, that he would be capable of launching a first strike against the USSR. That perception was pervasive through the whole government system in Russia. The Kremlin, the Armed Forces, the KGB: everyone was on edge and they had their fingers on hair triggers.
These facts make the decision by Petrov one of humongous importance; had he decided otherwise he could have very well had put into motion, a chain of events that might not allow me to be sitting at my PC in 2017, writing this story. In fact, I would probably not be sitting anywhere: dead people are usually lying down, unless they are evaporated by a close nuclear blast that is.
In the first hours of that morning, a warning came up on the screen that a launch of five intercontinental nuclear missiles had been detected.
Something was not right in that picture in Petrov’s mind. Only five missiles? If a first strike was to be conducted, reason dictates that you go all out in a hope to destroy the other guy’s retaliatory capabilities.
Petrov froze in place, as he said in an interview he gave to BBC in 2013. The missiles would reach USSR in 20 minutes. There was no a rule in place about how much time you have to think upon a warning. All he had to do was to pick up the phone and inform about the alarm up the chain of command. But he was the man on the ground, the person with the clearest picture; he knew that others above him would rely on his opinion to make a fateful decision.
The system told him that the reliability of the alert was the highest possible. Satellite radar operators told him that they had registered no missiles, but those guys were a support element in the process of detection. The protocol stated explicitly that the decision was to be based on computer readouts and it was his sole duty to make that decision. Instead, he called and reported a system malfunction: if he was wrong, the first mushrooms would appear in Russian horizon in mere minutes. Twenty-three minutes later, it was all over and Petrov was sure that he had made the right call, luckily for all the people of the planet.
In the 2013 interview, he said that it could have gone either way: he was unsure all the time during the event whether or not he had made the right call. He attributes the fact that he stopped to his technical education in the army. His colleagues were more typical USSR military products, he said. The USSR had a rigid doctrine that not only hated low-level initiative, but literally snuffed it out wherever it found it. If it had been any other person on shift that night, chances are that he would have picked up that phone in seconds.
And that was the story of how a nuclear disaster was averted. It is amazing how such a mundane posting in a bunker just outside Moscow could produce such horrible results had the conditions been different.
And it is shameful that Mr. Petrov’s death passed unnoticed when it occurred in May. A man who might not have charged a machine gun nest or won any medals, but one whose simple act of thinking for himself in a system which forbade such liberty, saved billions of lives just by not picking up the phone.
Thank you lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov
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