the year 1983, relations between Moscow and Washington was particularly
strained. The president of the United States, elected in 1981, was Conservative
Ronald Reagan. He had been a modest Hollywood actor. In 1981 he presented
himself as a White House candidate among the general skepticism. Instead with
his direct ways and with his ability to interact with the “good”
feelings of deep America he managed to defeat Jimmy Carter. He had repeatedly
named the Soviet Union as “the empire of evil.”
The secretary of the Central Committee of the Supreme Soviet and head of the Soviet government was Jurij Andropov, a dark party official who, nominated leader of the KGB, managed to move up in the Soviet nomenclature. He substituted for Secretary General of Supreme Soviet Michail Suslov at his death. Andropov had the typical formation of a Soviet member, a law-abiding official, with a poor ability to analyze the situations he met at his highest office, his decisions always shared with other members of the Supreme Soviet. In 1983 Andropov was seriously ill and was often admitted to hospital. The government of the Soviet Union was in the hands of Soviet members in the acute moments of the secretary’s illness.
Stanislav Petrov was born in the remote Vladivostok city of Siberia, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in front of Japan, in 1939. He was enlisted in the Soviet military structure where he had the task of military data analyst. In 1983 he was involved in the analysis of the signals that survey systems received from radar-controlled airspace. He had to report in a very short time any missile attacks from the USA.
On March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan had decided to implement US defense with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) system, which consisted of an integrated antimissile defense system: radar, anti-missile missiles to break down Soviet ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads launched against the territory of the United States, space satellites that had the task of directing missiles on targets.
On September 1, a serious accident compromised relations between the USSR and the US. A Boeing 747 from New York and headed to Seoul, of South Korean Airlines with 240 passengers and 29 crew members, was shot down by a fighter due to the overcrowding in Soviet airspace. The plane fell into the ocean and all the people on board died. The Boeing had made a stop to Anchorage to refuel. The official US version claimed that the trespassing was due to an autopilot error that had been triggered after the stop in the capital of Alaska. This version was confirmed in some other flights of the same type of aircraft in which the same anomaly was found. The USSR insisted on its version. the Soviets affirmed the trespassing had been made to photograph some secret military structures on the island of Sachalin. In this regard, some photos of Boeing were displayed on which some espionage equipment was mounted at a Washington base. Boeing’s South Korean commander was resumed shortly before embarking on the last voyage in a movie, while greeting his wife, showing himself particularly agitated. The Soviet fighter pilot who had crashed the airliner claimed that he had realized that it was a Boeing but had not communicated it by radio because no one had asked for it. The black boxes of the flight, recovered from the Soviet sea bottom, were returned to South Korea only in 1993. The analysis of the data in the two black boxes confirmed the autopilot’s error in following the predetermined route.
In 1978 the Boeing abduction had a specific precedent with another South Korean airliner. The South Korean plane had made a detour by penetrating the Soviet airspace at the height of the Kola Peninsula. An interceptor fighter shot two hits from the cannon on board, causing serious damage to the aircraft and the killing of two passengers. The line flight pilot managed to land on the ice surface of a lake. The black boxes of the civil aircraft were never returned to the airline and therefore it was not possible to ascertain the reasons for the route diversion.
All this caused an atmosphere of suspicion between the two superpowers and pointed out that reactions by the Soviet authorities, in the case of events deemed aggressive, whether fortuitous or error-borne, were not mediated by humanitarian considerations and analyzes but were guided by standard procedures written by the military commands and shared by the top leaders. The protocol, prepared following the United States and Germany joint exercises, conducted at the beginning of the year at the borders of the Soviet Empire, provided for the maximum nuclear response in the event of an attack. The Russians had not forgotten that the German invasion, during the Second World War, was preceded by the announcement of military exercises near the borders of Ukraine.
Stanislav Petrov, Lieutenant Colonel of 44 years in service at the Serpukhov 15 base, was aware of all this. On the night of September 25, 1983, he should have been free from service and home with his wife Raisa and his two sons Dimitri and Yelena. Fate wanted differently and that night he was called to replace a colleague.
He was confident that he could spend a relatively quiet night, even though he was aware that could not lower the level of attention due to the cold war weather that was particularly breathing in that period. The hours were quiet and the few signals coming from the radar were related to normal scheduled flights. The signals were analyzed by the new software called Krokus, still breaking in, which, according to the high military spheres, was infallible in identifying dangers from the sky. Petrov knew the Krokus program very well. He had participated in program tests. During the tests, he realized that, beyond the official conviction, even Krokus could make a badly wrong.
At 00.14 Moscow time. It was the morning of September 26, 1983. A signal appeared on the screen that the program deciphered to belong to a Minuteman missile with nuclear ogiva, presumably left Montana, pointing to Russia. All the alarms sounded, the attendants were taken by the anguish. Only Lieutenant Colonel Petrov, who at that time commanded the surveillance station, kept calm. Petrov analyzed the data coming from the screens. A single missile was launched to the Soviet Union.
Though the rigid protocol provided for an immediate warning, Lieutenant Colonel awaited to examine thoroughly the situation and found it unlikely because a US attack would not be carried out with only one Minuteman. A real attack would have involved dozens if not hundreds of tracks on the screens, a numerous cluster of missiles capable of destroying the offensive capabilities of the Soviet Union. He recommended calm to his men, then analyzed the consequences that a missile alert would cause and decided to make new verification. He knew the command line above him and the adherence to the established protocols. Military leadership and Secretary Andropov’s response would have been only one, the launch of the entire nuclear missile stock on targets already identified, on the United States and their allies. Of course soon afterwards there would be an adverse reaction, with the launch of nuclear warheads from the western bases with the target Soviet Union. The apocalypse. At 00.19, four other Minuteman missile tracks appeared on the system screens. At this point there were five missiles reported by the satellite system. Petrov did not trust the OKO satellites that were doing the surveys at that time, but he wanted to see whether the missile tracks were detected by the radars as well. The radar screens did not signal anything. Commander Petrov was convinced that a malfunction of satellite surveys was deceiving the Krokus program. He believed that the Americans knew that their single missile, or five missiles, would have caused the USSR’s greatest reaction. A minimum launch was illogical.
At 00.24, Stanislav Petrov assumed his responsibilities and signaled to the high commanders that an anomaly of the missile detection system was happening, misreading the presence of five tracks in the skies of the Soviet Union. The high commanders fortunately believed the lieutenant colonel and did not take any response action.
At 00.32, a few minutes before the impact on the targets of alleged American missiles, the Krokus system wiped out the traces that caused the alarm from the screens. The system was working properly. All of the 120 men in the Serpukhov 15 Surveillance Base breathed a sigh of relief.
It was subsequently found that the error was due to the autumn equinox that, along with a particular position of the earth against the sun, generated in the surveillance system the confusion between the traces of light-reflections due to the equinox and the signals who release the missiles at their passing.
Stanislav Petrov, back home, got drunk with vodka. When he was able to return to job he was welcomed by the affection of all his companions, who gave him a color television to thank him for his stubbornness that had escaped the Third World War. His superiors promised him a decoration and promotion to the top grade.
None of this happened. The high party bureaucrats at first had appreciated the behavior of Lieutenant Colonel Petrov, who had avoided a tragic mistake. Then, in terms of regulations and procedures, they considered that the fact that he did not report the alleged missile attack was a serious fault. But they did not have the courage to take action against Petrov for his behavior. They waited. Sometime later they found an excuse for punishing Lieutenant Colonel for another alleged fault. He was placed in early retirement and was given a modest pension. The episode was, of course, kept in the utmost secret because it had highlighted the fragility of Soviet defense systems.
Only in 1998 the episode was known in the West. A former general Soviet told it to the American press. In 2004, San Francisco’s “Association of World Citizens” awarded Stanislav Petrov a prize for saving the world from the Third World War. The president of the association went to Moscow to give him a memorial plaque and a $ 1,000 cash prize. It was difficult to trace the lieutenant colonel retired. A Russian journalist succeeded in finding Petrov’s address. He lived in a modest home in a suburb of Moscow, Frjazino. AWC president went to the suburb without any appointment, as Petrov did not have a phone at home. He found a very modestly dressed man who lived in a small apartment, inside a popular condo. Stanislav Petrov rejected the hero’s name. He had done, he said, what everyone would do in their place. Over time he received other awards from Australia, the United Nations and Germany.
Stanislav Petrov died in his small apartment in Frjazino on May 19, 2017.
(Photo at the top: Cremlino di Mosca- Минеева Ю. (Julmin) 2007 – CC BY-SA 1.0)