Happy Petrov Day to All Our Readers and Thanks to You Stanislav!

Today is Petrov Day named in honor of Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet nuclear missile forces, who on September 26th. 1983 prevented nuclear war by refusing to believe what proved to be false radar images of a US nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

This is Stanislav:

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (Russian: Станислав Евграфович Петров; born c. 1939) is a retired lieutenant colonel of theSoviet Air Defence Forces who deviated from standard Soviet protocol by correctly identifying a missile attack warning as a false alarm on September 26, 1983.[1] This decision may have prevented an erroneous retaliatory nuclear attack on the United Statesand its Western allies. Investigation of the satellite warning system later confirmed that the system had malfunctioned.

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 by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.[4]There are varying reports whether Petrov actually reported the alert to his superiors and questions over the part his decision played in preventing nuclear war, because, according to the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation, nuclear retaliation is based on multiple sources that confirm an actual attack.[2] The incident, however, exposed a flaw in the Soviet early warning system. Petrov asserts that he was neither rewarded nor punished for his actions.[3]

Petrov later indicated the influences in this decision included: that he was informed a U.S. strike would be all-out, so five missiles seemed an illogical start,[1] that the launch detection system was new and, in his view, not yet wholly trustworthy, and that ground radars failed to pick up corroborative evidence, even after minutes of delay.[5]

Petrov underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions. Initially, he was praised for his decision.[1] 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.”[1] Petrov himself states he was initially praised by Votintsev and was promised a reward,[1][6] but recalls that he was also reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork with the pretext he had not described the incident in the military diary.[6][7]

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, so that if he had been officially rewarded, they would have had to be punished.[1][3][6][7] He was reassigned to a less sensitive post,[7]took early retirement (although he emphasizes that he was not “forced out” of the army, as the case is presented by some Western sources),[6] and suffered a nervous breakdown.[7]

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

There is some confusion as to precisely what Petrov’s military role was in this incident. Petrov, as an individual, was not in a position where he could have single-handedly launched any of the Soviet missile arsenal. Instead Petrov’s sole duty was to monitor satellite surveillance equipment and report missile attack warnings up the chain of command where, ultimately, the top Soviet leadership would have decided whether to launch a “retaliatory” attack against the West. Whether to launch an attack was not Petrov’s decision to make. His role, however, was crucial in the process of making that decision.[8] According to Bruce Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategies expert and nuclear disarmament advocate, formerly with the Center for Defense Information, “The top leadership, given only a couple of minutes to decide, told that an attack had been launched, would make a decision to retaliate.”[9]

Petrov is now a pensioner, spending his retirement in the town of Fryazino, Russia.[10] On 21 May 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and $1000 “in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe.”[11]

In January 2006, Petrov traveled 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.[12] 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, are expected to be included in the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World.[11][13]

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.”[2]

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,[14] 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.”

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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