Commemorating Stanislav Petrov, Protecting the World He Saved September 21, 2023
On Monday, September 26, 1983, Lt Col Stanislav Petrov sat in a Soviet nuclear bunker and faced perhaps the most terrifying situation you can imagine for the start of your workweek. A red siren began to blare, the word “Launch” appeared in red on the screen in front of him, and again, and again. Soviet early warning systems had detected a nuclear missile coming from the United States. Petrov described the experience as like being sat on a frying pan, unable to move, as one by one the launch signals accumulated: all systems indicated five nuclear missiles were en route to Moscow.
Petrov had a matter of minutes to respond. With five separate launches detected, and 29 levels of security checks completed by the computerized system, Soviet doctrine dictated Petrov must report his findings to superiors who, in turn, may have rapidly begun the launch sequence for a counter strike on the United States. “I had all the data. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it”, he told the BBC in 2013.
With the information available, to not file the report constituted a dereliction of Petrov’s duty – had he survived the oncoming strike he would likely have been executed for treason.
But Petrov chose to not report the launch up the chain of command. Reasoning that no signal had been picked up by support teams operating alternative satellite systems, and reasoning a pre-emptive U.S. strike on the Soviets would involve significantly more missiles, he believed it was a system malfunction and a false alarm. With this choice, Petrov likely prevented nuclear war.
Petrov has since said he never believed his odds of being correct were better than 50:50, most lesser people would have deferred responsibility and reported up the chain of command. He has repeatedly commented that should anyone else have been on duty that day, luck saved us above anything else. Talking to TIME in 2015, he commented “we built the system to rule out the possibility of false alarms, and that day the satellites told us with the highest degree of certainty that these rockets were on the way” but his instinct, and desire not to be responsible for the start of a global conflict, prevailed.
In honor of his brave decision, and in recognition of just how close we came, the United Nations General Assembly declared September 26 as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
Global nuclear disarmament has long been an important ambition of the UN, indeed its first-ever resolution established the Atomic Energy Commission with the hope that it would control nuclear energy and work towards the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. Yet, more than 12,000 nuclear weapons remain in the world today and, with the war in Ukraine, the nuclear taboo is under threat.
A nuclear war is unwinnable, its victims would be untreatable, and it must never take place.
The exact number of lives Petrov saved that day is hard to estimate – a 1979 Congressional estimate placed the immediate toll of a Soviet-American exchange at between 136 and 288 million people, larger than any conflict or genocide in history, and that is before the estimated two billion people that would be threatened by a global famine resulting from such an exchange.
It was later discovered the false alarm that Petrov endured occurred due to the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds. “Can you imagine? It was as though a child had been playing with a vanity mirror, throwing around the sun’s reflection, and by chance that blinding light landed right in the center of the system’s eye.”, he told TIME. What continued to haunt Petrov until his death was the very real possibility that such an event could happen again. “One way or another, you still need a person to order a launch of one of these weapons, and a person can always make a mistake.” “The slightest false move can lead to colossal consequences, that hasn’t changed.”
It is this final point that is so poignant on the event’s anniversary. Forty years down the line, nuclear weapons are still held in precarious “hair trigger” status and we remain vulnerable to mistakes, misjudgements, and system errors that threaten humanity’s very existence. Despite President Biden’s earlier pledge to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and to declare their sole purpose as a deterrent, the Administration has taken no action to make this a reality since entering high office.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is the most powerful tool we have to step away from the nuclear precipice, yet the Biden administration refuses to cooperate with the 122 nations that seek this peaceful future.
From November 27 to December 1 delegates from across the world will meet in New York for the 2nd Meeting of State Parties (2MSP) to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). PSR firmly believes the United States should be present at this event, as a matter of global leadership responsible statecraft, and our legal obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Ask the Biden Administration to send U.S. observers to the 2nd Meeting of State Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons taking place this November.
Do you know elected officials who want to live in a safer world? Then ask them to sign onto the Back from the Brink letter to President Biden encouraging steps towards nuclear sanity, including support for the TPNW. Check it out here.