On October 27, 1962, at the tail end of the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet submarine B-59 lurked in Caribbean waters off of Cuba. Codenamed a Foxtrot-class diesel sub by NATO forces, B-59 contained one special torpedo – a “T-5.” The commander knew the type from its purple tip. It was a nuclear weapon with a 10KT yield.
The American fleet above knew where B-59 was, but the Americans couldn’t communicate with it. At least not directly. B-59’s air conditioning wasn’t working. The boat’s interior was oppressively hot, and it was out of communication with Moscow. Soviet sailors were on edge. American warships started dropping practice depth charges with no “killing power” just to get B-59 to surface. The Cuban crisis was over, but B-59 didn’t know that. B-59’s sonar picked up the depth charge sounds and Captain Savitsky along with the political officer Ivan Semyonovich Maslennikov assumed the worst. They thought war had broken out and they were prepared to launch their nuclear torpedo to destroy the American fleet above. They also knew they were dead men if they did. Also aboard was Vasily Arkhipov. Arkhipov was the commander of the deployed submarine detachment and he was not willing to launch. All three needed to approve. The political officer screamed at Arkhipov to approve the launch. Arkhipov wouldn’t. The depth charges sounded like practice rounds.
Eventually, the B-59 surfaced. There was no war. Nuclear winter was averted.
Almost 20 years later, on September 26, 1983, Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Defense Forces was at his station outside Moscow when the early warning satellite system alarms sounded. It was telling Petrov that the Americans had launched a first strike. His computer told him there were five Minuteman ballistic missiles incoming. The Cold War was still hot in 1983 with the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov being particularly paranoid about the west. Petrov needed to act. He did, and he may have saved the world from a nuclear war. He acted, by not listening to what the “system” was telling him – rather, he acted on his “gut.” He decided that the “incoming” missiles were not real. A false alarm.
The Soviet Union, the reason NATO was formed, dissolved 31 years ago. What remains are an expanded NATO and a Russia with more than 6,000 nuclear warheads. Although Russia never even hinted at a suicidal invasion of a NATO country, it did invade Ukraine, a former part of the Soviet Union. Russia wanted parts of its “Empire” back. Ukraine has resisted that effort and Russia’s grand plan has not gone as they’d hoped. As the war slogs on and draws closer to its second winter, the rhetoric of both Putin and Zelensky has grown more caustic and strident. Putin has threatened to use whatever means he has (including nuclear) if NATO gets more involved in the war. America continues to deplete its war-making stores and sent billions in cash to Ukraine. Putin is now rattling his nuclear sword with a show of force, likely in response to Zelensky pointedly saying he won’t negotiate with Putin and demands a regime change. Now there is a renewed push to admit Ukraine into NATO. Of all the bad ideas, that might be the worst.
There is no assurance that Putin is willing to use a tactical nuclear weapon, even if provoked. Equally, there is no assurance that he would not. Putin isn’t the most stable world leader and if a madman is provoked, is it too far a stretch to believe he’d use a nuke? And if he did, would NATO run to Ukraine’s rescue? David Patreus recently suggested that if Putin used a tactical nuke in a war we are not fighting, then America would destroy Russia’s Black Sea fleet. If that happened Russia would return the favor and likely with more tactical nuclear weapons and not in Ukraine. One can envision an entire carrier task force being wiped off the map. Then, all bets are off. Even if we avoided a nuclear winter, the world’s economy would collapse.
Is there a modern-day Petrov or Arkhipov in Russia who would be willing to say “No”?
I, for one, don’t want that decision left to a Lt. Colonel or a submariner with a conscience.
Playing Nuclear Russian roulette with Putin seems like the dumbest game ever.