Stanislav Petrov

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Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov
Born c. 1939
Stanislav Petrov, 1999
Allegiance Flag of the Soviet Union U.S.S.R.
Service/branch Soviet Air Defence Forces
Rank Lieutenant colonel

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (Russian: Станислав Евграфович Петров) (born c. 1939) is a retired Soviet Air Defence Forces lieutenant colonel who, according to several sources, averted a nuclear war on September 26, 1983, when he deviated from standard Soviet doctrine by positively identifying a missile attack warning, that had been activated by a Soviet spy satellite, as a false alarm.[1]

This decision, according to several sources, was a major factor in preventing an accidental retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States. Investigation of the satellite warning system later confirmed that the system had been malfunctioning.

Though there continue to be varying reports as to whether Petrov actually reported the alert to his superiors, or what part his decision ultimately played in preventing nuclear war, he demonstrated a willingness to risk punishment in order to possibly prevent a catastrophe. This incident exposed a critical flaw in the Soviet missile warning system and deeply embarrassed the upper echelons of the Soviet Army. According to some sources, Petrov was transferred to non-command duty in retaliation for that, although he himself asserts that he was neither rewarded nor punished for his actions.[2] Because of Soviet military secrecy and international political concerns, Petrov's actions were kept secret until 1998 when a Russian officer present at the bunker wrote a book detailing the incident.

This incident is one of several high-risk decisions that were made by strategic nuclear forces over the years of the Cold War, often at the last minute, by administrative personnel far from the top of the chain of command.


[edit] Background

The incident occurred at a time of severely strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Only three weeks earlier, the Soviet military had shot down a South Korean passenger jet, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, that had entered into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board;[3] many Americans were killed, including US congressman Larry McDonald. NATO was soon to begin the military exercise Able Archer 83, preparations for which had been interpreted by the KGB as preparation for a first strike.[3]

[edit] 1983 incident

Stanislav Petrov, an Air Defence lieutenant colonel, was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow on September 26, 1983.[4] Petrov's responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. If notification was received from the early-warning systems that inbound missiles had been detected, the Soviet Union's strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States (launch on warning), specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.[1]

Shortly after midnight, the bunker's computers reported that an intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the US.[5] Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a United States first-strike nuclear attack would be likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches, in order to disable any Soviet means for a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system's reliability had been questioned in the past.[6] Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors[7] or not[5] after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that no missile had been launched. Later, the computers identified four additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov again suspected that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union's land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon, and waiting for it to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union's response time to minutes.

Had Petrov reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov declared the system's indications a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that he was right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites' Molniya orbits, an error later corrected with cross-reference to a geostationary satellite.[8]

Petrov later indicated the influences in this decision included: that he had been told a US strike would be all-out, so that five missiles seemed an illogical start;[1] that the launch detection system was new and, in his view, not yet wholly trustworthy;[citation needed] and that ground radars were still failing to pick up any corroborative evidence, even after minutes of delay.[citation needed]

[edit] Aftermath

Petrov underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions. Initially, he was praised for his decision.[7] Col. Gen. Yury Votintsev, then commander of the Soviet Air Defense's Missile Defense Units, who was the first to hear Petrov's report of the incident (and the first to reveal it to the public in the 1990s), states that Petrov's "correct actions" were "duly noted".[7] Petrov himself also states that he was initially praised by Votintsev and was even promised a reward,[7][9] but recalls that he was also reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork with the pretext that he hadn't described the incident in the military diary.[10][9]He received no reward. According to Petrov, this was because the incident and other bugs that were found in the missile detection system embarrassed his superiors and the influential scientists who were responsible for the system, and if he had been officially rewarded, they would have had to be punished, too.[10][9][7][2] He was reassigned to a less sensitive post,[10] took early retirement (although he emphasizes that he was not "forced out" of the army, as the case is presented by some Western sources[9]) and suffered a nervous breakdown.[10]

The incident involving Petrov first became known publicly in the 1990s following the publication of Yury Votintsev's memoirs. Widespread media reports since then have increased public awareness of Petrov's actions.

Petrov is now a pensioner, spending his retirement in the town of Fryazino.[11] On May 21, 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Colonel Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and US$1000 "in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe."[12]

In January 2006 Petrov travelled to the United States where he was honored in a meeting at the United Nations in New York City. There the Association of World Citizens presented Petrov with a second special World Citizen Award.[13] The following day Petrov met with American journalist Walter Cronkite at his CBS office in New York City. That interview, in addition to other highlights of Petrov’s trip to the United States, will be included in the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World,[12][14] which is expected to be released in July 2009.

[edit] Skepticism

On the same day that Petrov was honored at the United Nations in New York City, the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations issued a press release contending that a single individual would be incapable of starting or preventing a nuclear war, stating in part: "Under no circumstances a decision to use nuclear weapons could be made or even considered in the Soviet Union (Russia) or in the United States on the basis of data from a single source or a system. For this to happen, a confirmation is necessary from several systems: ground-based radars, early warning satellites, intelligence reports, etc."[15]

However, some Cold War analysts question whether this protocol would have been strictly followed in the case of the missile attack warning involving Petrov. Because of the state of mind of the Soviet leadership in 1983, along with distressing intelligence reports, the Soviet leadership appeared seriously concerned there would eventually be a surprise nuclear missile attack by the United States. Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies, now president of the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C., says the U.S.–Soviet relationship "had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system — not just the Kremlin, not just Andropov, not just the KGB — but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents... The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.–Soviet relations."[5] In an interview televised nationally in the United States, Blair said, "The Russians saw a U.S. government preparing for a first strike, headed by a President capable of ordering a first strike." Regarding the incident involving Petrov, he said, "I think that this is the closest we've come to accidental nuclear war."[16]

Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counterintelligence who knew Soviet leader Yuri Andropov well, says that Andropov's distrust of American leaders was profound. It is conceivable that if Petrov had declared the satellite warnings valid, such an erroneous report could have provoked the Soviet leadership into becoming bellicose. Says Kalugin, "The danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, 'The Americans may attack, so we better attack first.'"[17]

Petrov has said he does not regard himself as a hero for what he did that day. In an interview for the documentary film The Red Button and the Man Who Saved the World,[5] Petrov says, "All that happened didn't matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that's all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. 'So what did you do?' she asked me. I did nothing."

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c "24 years on - The man who saved millions of lives". The Malta Star. Retrieved on 2008-03-22. 
  2. ^ a b В Нью-Йорке россиянина наградили за спасение мира. (in Russian)
  3. ^ a b Bruce Kennedy. "War Games: Soviets, fearing Western attack, prepared for worst in '83". CNN. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d Ewa Pieta. "The Red Button & the Man Who Saved the World" (Flash). Retrieved on 2006-09-27. 
  6. ^ David Hoffman (February 10, 1999). "I Had A Funny Feeling in My Gut". Washington Post. 
  7. ^ a b c d e "The Man Who Saved the World Finally Recognized". Association of World Citizens. Retrieved on 2007-06-07. 
  8. ^ Molniya orbit
  9. ^ a b c d Тот, который не нажал. Moskovskiye Novosti (in Russian)
  10. ^ a b c d BBC TV Interview, BBC Moscow correspondent Allan Little, October 1998
  11. ^ Ian Thomas (October 7, 1998). "Stan the Man". Daily Mail. 
  12. ^ a b "Stanislav Petrov Averts a Worldwide Nuclear War". Bright Star Sound. Retrieved on 2006-09-27. 
  13. ^ "Russian Colonel Who Averted Nuclear War Receives World Citizen Award". (Moscow News). 2006-01-20. Retrieved on 2006-09-27. 
  14. ^ ""Statement Film website"". Statement Film ApS. 
  15. ^ Press Release. "Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations". 
  16. ^ "War Games". Burrelle's Information Services (Dateline NBC), Nov. 12, 2000. 
  17. ^ Scott Shane. "Cold War’s Riskiest Moment". Baltimore Sun, Aug. 31, 2003. 

[edit] External links

NAME Petrov, Stanislav Yevgrafovich
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