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Michael Jansen: The ultimate aversion
October 13, 2017
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A week ago the Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons received the 2017 Nobel peace prize at a time the nuclear bomb-armed US and North Korea are sparring and the US is threatening to pull out of the accord providing for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear programme. Beatrice Fihn, the group’s director made the point the election of the erratic and self-promoting Donald Trump — whom she labelled a “moron” — “has made a lot of people feel very uncomfortable with the fact that he alone can authorise the use of nuclear weapons.” She did not mention that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is equally scary, also has his finger on the trigger.

She said the award sent a message to the nine states with nuclear warheads — the US, UK, France, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — that they “can’t threaten to indiscriminately slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians in the name of [their own] security.” All nine have boycotted negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons approved by 122-non-nuclear states in July.

The Oslo based Nobel committee justified its choice by saying “the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time [and there is] a real danger that more countries will try to procure nuclear weapons.” The committee called on the nine to eliminate the 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals at a time the US, under Trump’s instructions, is upgrading its collection. This was the third time the prize has been given to anti-nuclear campaigners. In 1959, British diplomat Philip Noel-Baker received it for his efforts to achieve disarmament; in 2005 the International Atomic Energy Agency and its head Muhammad Elbaradei were selected for their efforts to “prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes.”

The chance of a nuclear war caused by hostile tweets and irresponsible statements has risen in recent weeks due to North Korean testing of long-range ballistic missiles along with Jong-un’s threat to strike the US and Trump’s comment that North Korea would be “met with fire and fury” if it makes good on its threat. 

At a time tension between the Soviet Union and the West was soaring, a potentially devastating nuclear-war-by-mistake was averted 34 years ago thanks to Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Union’s air defence forces. Shortly after midnight on September 26, 1983, Petrov was on duty at the secret command centre providing early warnings of missile launches when the soviet satellite tracking system reported a ballistic missile had been fired at Russia from a US base. A siren blared and Petrov’s computer screen went red with the word launch blazoned across it. After four more launches were registered, Petrov, who was in charge, had to calm 200 colleagues while deciding what to do. “There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” he told the BBC in 2013.

 “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. I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it. 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.”

 Two factors informed his decision: he distrusted the Soviet satellite tracking system and he had been told the US would launch an all-out offensive, not five missiles. “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he told The Washington Post. He rang army headquarters and reported false alarms. He was proven right when no missiles struck the Soviet Union and investigators found the system had malfunctioned due to the sun striking heavy cloud cover. The error was corrected by requiring monitors to rely on reports from multiple satellites.

If he had reported the launches as genuine, the Soviet Union could well have responded by firing missiles at US military facilities, cities and towns, eliciting massive retaliation from the US and its allies.

Petrov was not rewarded for preventing nuclear war but was criticised for failing to enter the incident correctly in his log book. If he had been honoured, superiors and the scientists who designed the Soviet tracking system would have been punished for the malfunction. He was sidelined to a less sensitive job and allowed to retire early. He became a senior engineer at the research institute that had built the faulty early-warning system but resigned to look after his ailing wife who died in 1997 without knowing what he had done. 

News of the incident was suppressed until 1998, well after the demise of the Soviet Union. Petrov was suddenly regarded as a hero, a role he dismissed, saying, “I was just at the right place at the right time.” He was the right man because he was the only person at the centre who had taken a degree at a civilian university before undergoing military training and did not simply follow orders without question. His colleagues could have, automatically, reported the malfunction — whatever the consequences.

In 2006 Petrov was presented with an award by the US-based Association of World Citizens. In 2012, he was given the German Media Prize, which had been given to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. In 2013 he received the Dresden Peace Prize. In 2014 the incident was depicted in a Danish documentary film entitled The Man Who Saved the World. He was always modest and humble over his role. He died at 77 on May 19th this year although his passing was reported in September only after his friend, German activist Karl Schumacher, rang Petrov on his birthday on September 7th and was given the news by his son. The “man who saved the world” died as he had lived under the radar.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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