Matt Gurney: A surprise fire drill for the end of the world
This week’s errant missile strike on Poland is exactly the kind of scenario that keeps experts up at night
By: Matt Gurney
Those with any memory of the Cold War probably got a bit of a cardio workout even if they were sitting still earlier this week when Polish news sources, which were quickly matched by American ones, reported that a Russian missile had landed in Poland, killing two civilians. An armed attack by Russia, in other words, on a NATO member state, even if a likely accidental one — Russia was bombing targets in Ukraine at the time and the site of the Polish blast was quite near the border with its embattled neighbour.
It didn’t take long before doubt emerged. At present, the official theory offered by Poland and accepted by NATO is that the missile that killed the two unfortunate Poles was actually a Ukrainian air-defence missile that was fired at incoming Russian missiles in self-defence. It somehow malfunctioned and landed in Poland. The Ukrainians themselves seem unconvinced and there are certainly those wondering if a wayward Ukrainian missile is a cover story to de-escalate a Russian mistake. Personally, I’d guess no. It probably was a Ukrainian missile. And if it is all a cover story in the cause of keeping tension between Moscow and the West at a low-sweat stage, I can live with that, for now.
The point isn’t for me to pretend I’m a munitions expert, capable of instantly solving the case with only the briefest glance at photos of a fragment of twisted missile debris. It’s more to consider what this event felt like, and what it easily could have been: one of the scarier scenarios Western officials and analysts have been worried since this war began nine months ago — an accident kicking off a conflict neither side wanted but neither will back down from once it’s begun.
This isn’t a new fear. It was a fear during the Cold War. And a justified one. At several points during that long standoff, technical malfunctions or political miscalculations raised the danger of a nuclear war to horrifying levels. On a few occasions American defence commanders wrongly believed that the Soviets were launching an attack; luckily for everyone, the Americans had redundancies and were well trained and cooler heads always prevailed. In 1983, Soviet satellites reported the Americans were firing ballistic missiles at the Soviet Union. Tensions were high at the time and the Soviets had decided to launch a full strike on the West as soon as any NATO launches were detected. But Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, a relatively low-ranked Soviet officer working the night shift, concluded that the warnings were probably a glitch — it didn’t make sense to him that America would open a surprise attack with a handful of missiles instead of the full arsenal. Rather than pass on a warning that would have triggered Soviet launches against NATO, he reported that the launch detections were a technical malfunction in the Soviet equipment. He did that again when further launches were detected. Lt. Col. Petrov then spent a few long and anxious minutes waiting to see if any NATO nuclear weapons exploded over targets in the Soviet Union. Waiting to see what happened was the only way the colonel could know if he’d made the right call, or a very, very bad one.
He was right, of course. It was a glitch. New Soviet satellites were being tricked by sunlight bouncing off clouds at high altitude. But for a few minutes, the fate of the world hung on one mid-ranked Soviet officer’s middle-of-the-night judgment call.
These real-life examples are horrifying. But learning of them never hit me quite as hard as the fictional scenario portrayed in the 1962 film Fail-Safe. Released around the same time as the more famous Doctor Strangelove, Fail-Safe, adapted from the novel Red Alert, was a grimly serious counterpart to Kubrick’s dark comedy. With an all-star cast that includes Walter Matthau and Henry Fonda, Fail-Safe depicts a series of small accidents that result in a group of American bomber pilots concluding that they have been ordered to conduct a retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union. There is no war. It’s entirely a misunderstanding, a fluke of American technological glitches and Soviet jamming. But the American pilots, trained to expect Soviet tricks and lies and to accept no order to abort (as such an order could be faked) relentlessly bore in on their targets, truly believing that they are avenging a Soviet strike on America.
I won’t spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that a desperate American president, in a shattering performance by Fonda, seizes on a ghastly fallback plan to convince the Soviets that the entire thing is indeed a misunderstanding and thus avoid a full nuclear war.
Fail-Safe is one of my favourite movies. But it’s not a movie I can return to often, especially since I’ve had children. I used to have a harder heart. Now, while I can still admire Fail-Safe as a brilliant story and piece of cinema, I have to confess that even thinking of the breathtaking and unforgettable final few minutes is enough to rob me of sleep.
Since the Cold War ended — paused, maybe? Changed? — the risk of a deliberate nuclear war between Russia and the West has been reduced. Arsenals have shrunk. Communications and contacts improved, or at least they did for a time. Sources of immediate tension like a divided Berlin were removed. Both sides, to be blunt, had fewer things to consider nuking the other bastards over. Lower tensions also give leaders on both sides more time to negotiate their way out of any crises that may arise.
But accidents can still happen. NATO, particularly the eastern nations with lived memories of Russian domination, have been on guard since the fighting began in February. A missile flying into NATO territory and killing civilians is nightmare fuel for anyone who has spent any time thinking about this stuff, or studying the Cold War.
It was also a real test for our leaders — a surprise fire drill for the end of the world. A lot of time has passed since the Soviet Union collapsed and the Western powers wrongly concluded that history had ended. A lot of the expertise honed during the Cold War’s slow burn has aged out, retired or simply passed on. Some of it has been replaced. We haven’t lost all the knowledge and habits of thought. The Americans, unsurprisingly, kept the most. But for many NATO and Western leaders, nuclear crises probably aren’t things they’ve spent much time thinking of, let alone studying, training for and laying awake at night worrying about.
Until February. Or maybe even until this week.
There is good news, of a kind. By all accounts NATO leadership behaved prudently, calmly and rationally. Emergency meetings were convened. Intelligence gathered. Leaders briefed. Much of the leadership was already conveniently gathered in one place, as the G20 was meeting in Asia when the missile hit Poland. The NATO and other allied national leaders met and said all the right things about Ukraine’s right to defend itself, Russia’s reckless and brutal war and the unity of NATO against any hostile attack. This includes our own prime minister. Justin Trudeau’s comments were pitch-perfect, which is not something I’ve often said of the man. But hey. When he’s right, he’s right.
What’s more important is what the assembled allied leaders didn’t do: freak out. Everyone, from the Poles on up, reacted well. A possible world-changing crisis was calmly and effectively de-escalated. That’s reassuring.
Still. I’ve spent the last few days wondering what those initial minutes and hours must have been like for the presidents and prime ministers. When I first saw the news, my stomach flipped over and, though it sounds like a cliche, I truly did feel a chill down my spine. This looked exactly like the thing I’ve been worried about since this damn war kicked off. How did Joe Biden feel? What went through his head? What about the British and French leaders, and the Germans’?
They probably didn’t sweat it long. My instant gut reaction was that it had to be an accident: an errant missile with a balky 8¢ guidance chip landing off target in the wrong country. Much like Lt. Col. Petrov, I concluded quickly that an attack with only a single missile didn’t make any rational sense. Only an accident fit the facts. The national leaders were no doubt rapidly briefed on the same by far more authoritative sources than yours truly.
But accidents can still kill. Two innocent Poles did indeed die. With all respect to the friends and families they’ve left behind, we are dammed lucky it was just those two. It doesn’t take a detailed knowledge of the Cold War, its history or its pop culture, to grasp how this could have gone wrong.
And still could go wrong. We were probably fortunate to get nine months into this war without something like this happening. It can easily happen again. Hopefully the cool heads we saw already will stay cool, but if there are further strikes on NATO territory, tensions will inevitably rise, and there may be pressure for NATO to put more men and equipment along the threatened borders, both to send a message of resolve to the Russians and reassure nervous allies but also to shoot down any more missiles, from any combatant, that may head for our countries, accidentally or on purpose.
And that too would be dangerous. If I may quote liberally from another classic piece of Cold War cinema, this time The Hunt for Red October, here is what the American National Security Advisor told the Soviet ambassador in one testy exchange: “It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity is inherently dangerous. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.”
Indeed they have. One could have begun this week. Let’s not confuse good luck with brilliance. Until this war ends, we are all in danger. I hope our leaders remember that — and remember how they felt the first moment they heard a missile had hit a NATO country and killed our people as they worked.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com