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Soviet Union

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The Man Who Saved the World

Stanislav Petrov was never famous in Russia, just another forgotten pensioner, so the news of his death at 77 in Moscow on 19 May only recently reached other countries. He wasn’t all that famous abroad either, but people in the know think he may have saved the world from nuclear war.

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big back-lit red screen with the word ‘Launch’ on it,” he told the BBC’s Russian Service in a 2013 interview. “I had all the data (suggesting that there was a US missile attack underway)….All I had to do was to reach for the phone to raise the direct line to our top commander – but I couldn’t
move.”

He couldn’t move because his screen was giving him reports from a Soviet spy satellite that five American Minuteman missiles had been launched at the Soviet Union. In the tense international atmosphere of September 1983, Soviet military doctrine was ‘launch on warning’: send a full retaliatory strike against the United States even before American nuclear weapons start to explode over Soviet missile silos and cities.

It was only three weeks since a Soviet fighter had shot down a Korean Air Lines flight and killed all 269 people aboard, including a US Congressman. Six months previously US President Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and called for a roll-back strategy that would “write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union.”

The Soviet leadership was genuinely frightened, and had a view of Reagan not unlike that of the US government about Kim Jong-un today. They feared a surprise attack designed to destroy all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles and bombers on the ground, and so had moved to ‘launch on warning’ mode. If Colonel Petrov reported what his screen was telling him, the machinery of Armageddon could start moving very quickly.

Stanislav Petrov didn’t report it. It was a new system, and it could be making a mistake. Besides, Petrov knew that you only get one chance at a surprise attack, so logic says you should launch all your missiles at once – more than a thousand of them, in the case of the United States. Launching just five would be beyond stupid. So he waited.

And waited, for 23 eternal minutes, to see if the Soviet Union’s ground radars also picked up the incoming missiles as they descended towards their targets. They didn’t. “I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

He was an ordinary man who did one extraordinary thing in his life, but think of the courage it took to ignore his orders, trust his judgement, and risk exposing his country to a surprise American nuclear attack. Think of what went through his mind in those 23 minutes. He was a hero.

No good deed goes unpunished, so Petrov was officially reprimanded for failing to describe the incident in his logbook. He was initially praised by his commanding officer for doing the right thing, but then it was realised that if he was rewarded, the senior people responsible for the system that produced the error would be punished. So he was sidelined, retired early, and subsequently had a nervous breakdown.

And the system error? The satellite had spotted a rare alignment of sunlight, reflected from the cloud-tops over the US Minuteman fields, that resembled missile launch tracks to its simple-minded image-reading device. There were several similar incidents during the Cold War – a US over-the-horizon radar once reported Moonrise as a mass missile launch – but this was the only one that happened when the relevant side was in launch-on-warning mode.

Given how full of bugs the missile-detection programmes of those days were, it’s remarkable that the United States and the Soviet Union got through 40 years of the Cold War unharmed. Full credit to the professionals on both sides who understood how grave the consequences would be if they got it wrong, and always relied on their own intelligence and experience when confronted with terrifying data from their machines.

Full credit too to the leaders who stayed calm and never actually threatened each other. Occasionally they declared the other side doomed by history – Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “we will bury you” comment in 1956, Reagan’s “write the final pages of (Soviet) history” speech of 1983 – but they were always talking about the other side’s economic and political defeat, not its nuclear annihilation.

Things are bit different now. Kim Jong-un’s lunatic threat to “sink” Japan and reduce the United States to “ashes and darkness” with his handful of nuclear weapons, like Donald Trump’s all-too credible threat to “totally destroy North Korea” (that’s 25 million men, women and children barbecued, irradiated or simply vaporised, if he means what he says), go far beyond the language that was used during the Cold War.

It would be reassuring to know that the professional military on both sides, at least, are as responsible and grown-up now as they were then. Alas, we don’t even know that.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“No good…mode”)

Angola: All Change?

There is momentous change in Angola. The oil-rich country of 28 million people on Africa’s southwestern coast has just elected J-Lo as president.

There is also very little change in Angola. The new president is not Jennifer Lopez, the American J.Lo (which would definitely mean big change). It is João Lourenço, a member of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) since the 1970s, a general since the 1980s, and most recently the Minister of Defence. He can’t sing, either.

J-Lo replaces 75-year-old José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been president for the past 38 years (the second longest-ruling president in the world). But it’s questionable how much power he will really inherit from the outgoing president, who passed a new law prohibiting his successor from changing the heads of the army, the police or the intelligence service for eight years. Dos Santos wants no surprises after his retirement.

In fact, it’s hard to say that Dos Santos is retiring at all. He will remain the head of the ruling MPLA party, his daughter Isabel (Africa’s richest woman) runs the state oil company, and one of his sons controls the $5 billion state investment fund. Other allies and cronies dominate the rest of the economy.

J-Lo, by contrast, holds no positions that provide opportunities to steal massive amounts from state funds, and is widely believed to be non-corruptible or nearly so, a rare quality in the MPLA’s senior leadershiip. That may be why he was forced on Dos Santos by the party as a successor.

The MPLA has a little problem. After a devastating 27-year civil war between rival liberation movements ended with the death in battle in 2002 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), rapidly growing oil production and high world oil prices created a huge boom in the Angolan economy. In several years since then it has been the fastest-growing economy in the world.

A great deal of the new wealth went to senior MLA members and their allies, but enough trickled down to keep the impoverished masses quiet and obedient. But the collapse in oil prices since 2014 has halved the Angolan government’s income and killed the private economy, such as it was. In the sprawling capital, Luanda, half-finished, abandoned apartment towers line the shore.

The poor are getting poorer, and they may eventually get angry. This is a relatively rich country where 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday and a quarter of the adult population is officially unemployed (unofficially, much more). There is a lot of dry political tinder lying around waiting for a match.

The opposition Unita party won 27 percent of the votes in last week’s election, ten percent more than ever before, despite what was probably large-scale vote-rigging. The rank-and-file of the ruling party is getting worried, and despite having made the transition from hard-line communist to free-market capitalist over the years the MPLA remains a disciplined organisation.

Dos Santos was invulnerable until he got ill, but for more than a year he has been receiving treatment for cancer. He had his cousin, Vicente Manuel, made vice-president in 2012 with the intention of making him the designated successor, but the party chose João Lourenço instead in 2015. And though nobody is admitting it publicly, it probably pressured Dos Santos not to run again in the 2017 election.

So change is probably on the way in Angola after all, despite Dos Santos’s strenuous efforts to protect his family’s own wealth and power and hamstring his successor. What kind of change it’s hard to say, because like all prominent MPLA members J-Lo has had to hide any contrary opinions he may have held during the long reign of Dos Santos.

One clue, however, is Lourenço’s reputation for honesty. Long-ruling parties faced with collapsing popular support often try to win it back by choosing somebody known to be clean and competent as leader: think of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union picking Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985.

But remember also what happened to the CPSU in 1991. It was already too late to “reform” the Communist Party in the Soviet Union by 1985. It may already be too late to reform the MPLA now. And Angola’s civil war is only fifteen years in the past: a transition to a less corrupt, more open, less repressive regime would be a tricky thing to manage.

Lourenço has fought for and served the MPLA all his adult life, and he certainly has no intention of removing it from power. But he could be seduced by the idea of making it really popular again, and thereby holding onto power by genuinely democratic means.

In which case we must wish him luck, while knowing that he is likely to fail.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12-13. (“One clue…manage”)

Don’t Touch That Button!

“When people say they’re never going to use the (nuclear) deterrent,” said General Sir Nicholas Houghton, “I say you use the deterrent every second of every minute of every day. The purpose of the deterrent is you don’t have to use it because you effectively deter.”

You sort of know what he meant to say, although his syntax needs some work. But the general’s incoherence is forgiveable, because it is grounded in the greater incoherence of the strategy he is trying to defend: the notion of an independent British nuclear deterrent.

As Britain’s most senior serving military officer, Houghton went on the BBC last weekend to denounce the leader of the opposition, Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn. Why? Because Corbyn had said he would never press the nuclear button in the (rather remote) contingency that he becomes prime minister after the 2020 election.

Indeed, Corbyn has said that he would like to get rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons entirely. “There are five declared nuclear weapon states in the world,” he told the BBC a month ago. “Three others have nuclear weapons. That is eight countries out of 192; one hundred and eighty-seven countries do not feel the need to have nuclear weapons to protect their security. Why should those five need them to protect their security?”

Now, there are a few errors and omissions in that statement. 192 minus eight is 184. The five “declared” countries – the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China – were already nuclear weapons powers before the Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, and their bombs were “grandfathered” by the treaty. They promised to get rid of them eventually, but half a century later “eventually” has still not arrived.

The four (not three) other nuclear weapons countries, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, never signed the NPT because they all had powerful enemies. Just like the original five, they were all thinking in terms of sheer survival when they developed their first nuclear weapons.

But what Corbyn failed to mention (to the great disadvantage of his argument) was that six other countries either had nuclear weapons or were on the brink of getting them – but then turned around and walked away from them.

Brazil and Argentina frightened each other into a race to develop nuclear weapons under the ultra-nationalist military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, but they didn’t really pose a threat to each other and the programmes were ditched by civilian governments in the 1990s. Both countries signed the NPT just before the century ended.

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all wound up with ex-Soviet nuclear weapons on their soil. But they had no real enemies, so they all agreed to destroy them or give them back to Russia, the legal successor to the Soviet Union.

And South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the dying days of apartheid, fearing that Cuban and Russian military help to the “front-line states” of Africa might grow into an all-out military assault on the white-ruled state. After white minority rule ended peacefully in 1994, the new government led by Nelson Mandela quietly dismantled the six South African bombs.

Nobody developed nuclear weapons just to feel more powerful: they were all driven by fear of attack. And when that fear vanished, as it did for some countries, they promptly got out of the nuclear weapons business again. Logically, both Britain and France should now belong the latter group.

They both built their bombs just after the Second World War because they feared an overwhelmingly powerful conventional conventional attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union, and didn’t trust the United States to use its own nuclear weapons to save them.

After the Soviet Union fell, they faced no threat that was even remotely comparable. They still don’t today. Yet they cling to their irrelevant nuclear weapons, presumably because they think that is what guarantees them a seat at the high table.

Maybe it does, but it is a very expensive way to keep a seat of such dubious value. The military forces that Britain actually uses from time to time are being hollowed out to maintain this ludicrous deterrent (which depends on missiles leased from the United States).

It wouldn’t transform the world if Britain got rid of its nukes, but it would be a down-payment on what all the declared nuclear powers said they would do when they signed the NPT. French nuclear disarmament would also be a good idea.

Like people who live on the slopes of a volcano that hasn’t erupted in seventy years, we have mostly forgotten the appalling danger that still looms over us. The Cold War ended thirty years ago but the weapons are still there, waiting for some fool or madman to press the button.

I know what you’re thinking: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and now it has a real enemy in Russia. So tell me: would you feel safer if Ukraine had nuclear weapons too? Would Ukrainians?

No. The stakes would be a hundred times higher, and we would have been living in a terrifying nightmare for the past two years.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, and 12. (“You…deterrent”; “But…them”; and “They…them”)

Seventy Years Wthout a Nuclear War

We have been hearing a lot about the 70th anniversary of the first use of a nuclear weapon on human beings, in Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945. The more important anniversary, however, is 9 August, when the LAST nuclear weapon was used in war, on the city of Nagasaki.

It was predictable that atomic bombs would be used as soon as they were developed in 1945. It was the sixth year of the Second World War, and more than 60 million people had been killed already. But nobody would have believed then that nuclear weapons would not be used again in future wars.

We cannot be sure that they never will be used in war again, of course, but seventy years is already an impressive accomplishent. How did we manage that? One way to answer that question is to consider the behaviour of US President Harry S Truman, who was the man who decided to drop the first atomic bombs in 1945 – and the first man to decide NOT to drop them, in 1951.

Truman’s decision to drop the bombs in 1945 probably didn’t seem as momentous to him at the time as it looks now. Killing tens of thousands of civilians in cities by mass bombing (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo) was practically routine by 1945, and the atomic bombs would have seemed like just a more efficient way of doing the same thing.

Besides, the fact that Japanese cities could now be destroyed by a single plane carrying a single bomb might well shock the Japanese government into surrendering. That would spare the lives of all the American soldiers (an estimated 46,000) who would die if Japan had to be invaded.

Truman had fought in the First World War (he was the only major Allied war leader who did). Although he was not generally seen as an imaginative man, he would have been vividly aware of the ordeal that awaited American soldiers if they had to invade Japan. He would also have been conscious that the US public would never forgive him if they found out that he had the bomb but didn’t use it to save those soldiers’ lives.

So he gave the orders and the bombs fell, adding a last quarter-million lives to that 60-million death toll. But five and a half years later, when US forces in Korea were fleeing south after Chinese troops intervened in the war there (“the big bug-out”), Truman behaved quite differently.

It may or may not be true that US General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the United Nations troops in Korea (including a third of a million Americans), wanted to drop atomic bombs on China’s Manchurian provinces to cut the supply lines of the Chinese troops in Korea. It is certainly true that Truman fired MacArthur, and that he did not use nuclear weapons even though thousands of American troops were being killed or captured.

Truman never explained his decision, but one possible reason is that actually seeing what nuclear weapons do to human beings (which nobody had yet seen when he made his 1945 decision) may have changed his view of them. They were not just another new weapon. They were the ultimate weapon, and they must not be used. And the other reason is obvious.

By late 1950, the United States had between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons – but the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb in the previous year, and by then it already had at least half a dozen of the things. The era of mutual deterrence had arrived.

Truman didn’t know for certain that the Soviet Union would go to war if the US dropped nuclear weapons on China. He would have been fairly certain that the Russians didn’t yet have the ability to drop even one on the United States, although they could definitely hit America’s allies in Western Europe. But it didn’t matter: once both sides have nuclear weapons, they get a great deal more cautious.

In the following decades, many military theorists have worked hard to come up with strategies that would make nuclear weapons useful in war, and many scientists and engineers have worked on new techniques and technologies that would achieve the same objective. But nobody has ever had enough confidence in their promises to use even one of these weapons in a war.

The number of nuclear weapons in the world (many of them much more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs) peaked at around 50,000 in the mid-1980s, and has since fallen to about 15,000. The US and Russia still own 93 percent of them, but seven other countries now have nukes too – and still nobody has used one in war.

It is also true that no great power has fought any other great power directly for seventy years, which is certainly a first in world history. Is this because the two world wars had been so destructive that they created institutions like the UN Security Council to avoid another, or because they knew that great-power wars would probably be nuclear wars?

Probably both, but at any rate we’re making progress.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Truman…lives”; and “Truman…obvious”)