zenpundit.com » russia

Archive for the ‘russia’ Category

Twice lucky, or thrice? On dodging nuclear fireballs

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — two Russian secular saints — and an Australian ]

It seems we’ve been lucky twice —


Read their two stories, and weep.


27 October 1962

Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war

If you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the most dangerous day in history. An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.

The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that world war three had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.

If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have died. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove’s orgiastic Götterdämmerung – would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China. [ .. ]

The decision not to start world war three was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine. The launch of the B-59’s nuclear torpedo required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. Arkhipov was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save a submarine with an overheating reactor.


September 26, 1983

The Man Who Saved the World by Doing Absolutely Nothing

It was September 26, 1983. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker outside Moscow. His job: to monitor Oko, the Soviet Union’s early-warning system for nuclear attack. And then to pass along any alerts to his superiors. It was just after midnight when the alarm bells began sounding. One of the system’s satellites had detected that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles. And they were heading toward the USSR. Electronic maps flashed; bells screamed; reports streamed in. A back-lit red screen flashed the word ‘LAUNCH.'”

That the U.S. would be lobbing missiles toward its Soviet counterpart would not, of course, have been out of the question at that particular point in human history. Three weeks earlier, Russians had shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space. NATO had responded with a show of military exercises. The Cold War, even in the early ’80s, continued apace; the threat of nuclear engagement still hovered over the stretch of land and sea that fell between Washington and Moscow.

Petrov, however, had a hunch — “a funny feeling in my gut,” he would later recall — that the alarm ringing through the bunker was a false one. It was an intuition that was based on common sense: The alarm indicated that only five missiles were headed toward the USSR. Had the U.S. actually been launching a nuclear attack, however, Petrov figured, it would be extensive — much more, certainly, than five. Soviet ground radar, meanwhile, had failed to pick up corroborative evidence of incoming missiles — even after several minutes had elapsed. The larger matter, however, was that Petrov didn’t fully trust the accuracy of the Soviet technology when it came to bomb-detection. He would later describe the alert system as “raw.”

But what would you do? You’re alone in a bunker, and alarms are screaming, and lights are flashing, and you have your training, and you have your intuition, and you have two choices: follow protocol or trust your gut. Either way, the world is counting on you to make the right call.

Petrov trusted himself. He reported the satellite’s detection to his superiors — but, crucially, as a false alarm. And then, as Wired puts it, “he hoped to hell he was right.”

He was, of course. The U.S. had not attacked the Soviets. It was a false alarm. One that, had it not been treated as such, may have prompted a retaliatory nuclear attack on the U.S. and its NATO allies. Which would have then prompted … well, you can guess what it would have prompted.


Oh, and the Australian. I came by this topic via an article about this man, Professor Des Bell:


A strategist with books — he’s the sort of chap this blog thrives on! And he, too, seems to have saved us from a fiery furnace of our own devising:

Des Ball: the man who saved the world

THAT America could launch a limited nuclear strike against Russia was a fashionable belief in US strategic theory of the 1970s. Policymakers thought that if Cold War tensions boiled over, they could hit selected Soviet targets in a way that controlled further escalation and forced Moscow to back down.

It took the iconoclastic Australian security scholar Des Ball to point out that the theory was bunkum. In his influential essays of the early 1980s, Ball argued that reasoned strategic theory was likely to go out the window once the missiles started flying.

Among the first targets would be the other side’s command and control centres – its eyes and ears. Once blinded, a superpower – consisting of real people responding with human instincts – would not distinguish a ”controlled” strike from a full-scale attack and would retaliate with everything it had.

Thrice lucky? I prefer to call it grace.

Vladimir Putin and St Vladimir, Church and State in Russia

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Saint Vlad II? Tsar Vlad? Impaler Vlad? Ras(KGB)Putin? — my latest piece, posted today at LapidoMedia ]

Here’s the opening of my latest piece for LapidoMedia, exploring issues of Church and State — with an eye on Putin & Patriarch Kirill, and their join interest in the assassination / martydom of the Romanovs.

Vladimir Putin and St Vladimir, Church and State in Russia

THE Romanovs, the royal family of the Russian Tsars were killed, and some would say martyred, by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

But now, almost a century later, President Vladimir Putin, appears to be slowly rehabilitating the royals.

And the Romanovs’ reemergence has implications for Putin, a quasi-Tsar as Russian head of state, emphasizing renewed collaboration between Church and State, long estranged during Soviet rule.

Here as in many other ways, Putin works in close association with his fellow ex-KGB hand, Patriarch Kirill II of Moscow. Forbes described him as more than a mere informer saying he was ‘an active officer’ of the spy organization.

And Putin’s friend the Patriarch too has a keen interest in the rehabilitation of the Romanovs.

In a 2013 television broadcast on the significance of the Romanov family, he said: ‘A solemn Divine Liturgy was celebrated on March 6 in Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin, during which we commemorated all Romanovs, beginning with Mikhail Fedorovich, Aleksei Mikhailovich – the great gatherer of the Russian land, Peter I, and down to the Holy Passion-Bearer Nicholas II. We commemorated these people with thanks to God for their efforts and with prayers beseeching the Lord to grant rest to their souls in the abode of the righteous.’

To read the rest, including the end of my tale, looking at ideas that Vladimir Putin must surely have entertained– Saint Vladimir II? Tsar Vlad? Impaler Vlad? Ras(KGB)Putin? — please go to the Lapido site.


The great northern thaw

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — okay, methane, yes, for starters — now add some radioactive waste and anthrax to the brew ]

Two recent items that caught my eye:

Tablet DQ Thaw raindeer and radioactivity


  • USA Today, Global warming could ‘unfreeze’ waste buried in old Greenland military base
  • The Atlantic, Siberia’s Deadly Anthrax Outbreak
  • **

    More generally, we non-expert interested folk have known for a while — assuming, say, we read the New York Times piece, As Permafrost Thaws, Scientists Study the Risks, back in 2011 — that loss of permafrost was hazardous to planetary health:

    Experts have long known that northern lands were a storehouse of frozen carbon, locked up in the form of leaves, roots and other organic matter trapped in icy soil — a mix that, when thawed, can produce methane and carbon dioxide, gases that trap heat and warm the planet. But they have been stunned in recent years to realize just how much organic debris is there.

    A recent estimate suggests that the perennially frozen ground known as permafrost, which underlies nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere.

    Temperatures are warming across much of that region, primarily, scientists believe, because of the rapid human release of greenhouse gases. Permafrost is warming, too. Some has already thawed, and other signs are emerging that the frozen carbon may be becoming unstable. [ .. ]

    If a substantial amount of the carbon should enter the atmosphere, it would intensify the planetary warming. An especially worrisome possibility is that a significant proportion will emerge not as carbon dioxide, the gas that usually forms when organic material breaks down, but as methane, produced when the breakdown occurs in lakes or wetlands. Methane is especially potent at trapping the sun’s heat, and the potential for large new methane emissions in the Arctic is one of the biggest wild cards in climate science.


    Okay, now we can also think about rotting reindeer carcases and radioactive waste.

    I can’t see Russia from my house, but it looks as though the Russians have the reindeer anthrax issue well in hand, and the “once top-secret subterranean U.S. nuclear base in northern Greenland” with its “radioactive coolant, PCBs, and raw sewage that the military originally believed would stay entombed for millennia” seems to pale in comparison with the possibilities of methane discharge — Cheryl Rofer could no doubt estimate the comparative risks far better than I — so this post is not intended as a scare-alert, but as yet another example of a category that interests me way more than most — which is why I’d like to direct it:

    Attn: Department of Blindspots and Unintended Consequences


    Four angles plus one on reading Trump

    Sunday, July 31st, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — on the need for an analytic open mind — or hedging one’s bets? ]

    I suppose we have to start with Trumpian Fundamentalism — by wbich I mean, taking the literal meaning from whatever he says. This view is simple, even simplistic.

    One down, three to go.


    There’s Lt. Gen. Flynn‘s view:

    In the linked Politico article, Flynn is quoted thus:

    Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn says he’s trying to get Donald Trump to be more precise in how he talks about foreign policy, but he defended some of his hardline proposals as simply opening offers in negotiations on world affairs.

    “First of all, I don’t agree with everything that he said. But he’s an individual who’s willing to take on a challenge,” the retired lieutenant general, a former President Barack Obama appointee who advises Trump on foreign policy, told Al Jazeera English’s “UpFront.” “The other aspect is there must be more precision in the use of the language that he uses as the potential leader of the free world. There has to be more precision, and those are the types of pieces of advice that I’m trying to get into him to say [to] be more precise, be more conscious about what you say about foreign policy issues because they are complicated.” [ .. ]

    In Trump’s defense, Flynn said the real estate mogul sees the world from the perspective of a global businessman and suggested the billionaire’s bombastic rhetoric is just a starting point for negotiations.

    Trump’s strategy is to “start really, really high and really, really hard, OK?” Flynn explained. “And then, be prepared to get down to where you think you can actually negotiate.”

    This view has the advantage of following a business model, and Trump may or may not be anything else, but he’s surely a businessman. It also leaves a lot of room for “play” between his stated intentions on the one hand, and what he’s liable to settle for when talk comes to signature on the other.


    Third, there’s Trump’s ghostwriter’s view:

    Schwartz‘ tweet was quickly paired — for instance — with:

    This angle has the advantage of psychological plausibility.

    How can I put this kindly? The poet Rumi is quoted as saying “Many of the faults you see in others, dear reader, are your own nature reflected in them.”



    I gather there is or was until fairly recently a US submarine defensive system called a MOSS (mobile submarine simulator) MK70 — a decoy launched from a torpedo tube which Wikipedia tells us [1, 2] lacked an explosive warhead but was “able to generate both an active sonar echo and a passive sound signature recorded to be extremely similar to that of the launching submarine” — thus effectively simulating a full size submarine.

    I learned this today after looking up “chaff” in the belief that Trump may simply be scattering all manner of provocative yet contradictory statements in his wake, with a view to confusing the hell out of his enemies — whether his fellow Republicans, his presumptive Democratic opponent, or potentially hostile state and nonstate actors abroad.

    Call that the Kim Jong Il factor — and consider by way of analogy Why it’s sane for Kim Jong-il to be crazy.


    And quintessentially?

    Those were my four original angles — but thought of Trump and Kim Jong Il reminded me of talk of Trump and Vladimir Putin — and I can’t really leave this topic without noting blog-friend Cheryl Rofer‘s recent writings on the subject:

  • Cheryl Rofer, Trump and Russia
  • Cheryl Rofer, Trump’s Russian Deals
  • Cheryl Rofer, What Trump Has Said About Russia
  • Cheryl Rofer, Donald Trump: Fellow Traveler Or Useful Idiot?
  • **

    In my view, reading Trump comes close to qualifying as a wicked problem:

    A wicked problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented. The term was originally coined by Horst Rittel.

    Wicked problems always occur in a social context — the wickedness of the problem reflects the diversity among the stakeholders in the problem.

    Perhaps this explains in part why there’s such considerable polarization in our various responses to Donald J Trump and his many tweets and speeches.

    For more on wicked problems:

  • Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity
  • The epigraph to Conklin’s chapter is from Laurence J. Peter, and reads:

    Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

    I have to say, I feel that way a lot these days.

    Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

    Monday, July 11th, 2016

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    Storm of Creativity2017



    white horsewashington


    The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

    2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

    The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

    Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

    Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

    Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

    The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

    Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

    This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

    I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

    2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

    David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

    Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

    Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

    Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

    White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

    Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

    This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

    Switch to our mobile site