How Stanislav Petrov Saved the World
Stanislav Petrov doesn’t sound the name of someone who could save the world from total annihilation. After he was just a Russian Lt. Col in the Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces. But save the world he did, even if Russia wasn’t about to acknowledge it. Mr Petrov passed away at the age of 77 on May 19.
Cold War tensions
On September 1, 1983, a Korean Airliner was shot down by a Soviet SU-15 helicopter, killing all 269 people aboard. The plane had deviated from its original flight plan, encroaching into Soviet restricted airspace. Because the incident occurred around the same time as a US aerial reconnaissance mission, the Soviets shot it down as a spy plane.
It set US-Soviet relations on edge, with them believing the possibility of an all out nuclear retaliation was high. Ronald Reagan was President at the time, presiding over a tense cold war period of history.
On September 26, 1983, just three weeks later, Petrov was the on-duty officer whose job it was to monitor the Soviet’s brand new Oko Early Warning system. The “it” happened – the warning system showed armed American missiles headed for Moscow.
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big back-lit screen with the word ‘launch’ on it…There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders – but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” Stanislav Petrov to the BBC in 2013
Military Story noted that Petrov decided that it was a malfunction rather than an all out attack, although he wasn’t entirely certain. It was the “all out attack” part that gave Petrov the hint that maybe it wasn’t what it appeared- there weren’t enough missiles in the cluster.
He had a “feeling” that it wasn’t right. Only 5 missiles seemed wrong. But there was only a 20 minute window before America missiles would destroy Russia.
“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”
The Russian government didn’t acknowledge Petrov’s actions until the 1990s. He was neither punished nor rewarded by the Soviets for saving the world. He could not have actually “pushed the button” on retaliatory nuclear weapons. But had he made that phone call to his superiors, they might have done so.
R.I.P. Mr. Petrov, thanks for saving the world.