On this day in 1995 – nearly four years after the end of the Cold War – the Russian Federation came within minutes of launching a nuclear strike on the United States. In the morning of January 25th, a rocket was detected by Russian early-warning systems in the Murmansk Oblast. The rocket was travelling along an air corridor that led to Moscow, quickly reaching an altitude of 1,453 km (903 miles). These actions fit the profile of a Minuteman III, one of America’s latest generation of nuclear weapons.
Fearing an EMP blast (electro-magnetic pulse that would disable Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities), the Russian military was placed on high alert and president Boris Yeltsin was notified. Within minutes of the strange missile’s detection, the Cheget – Russia’s “nuclear briefcase” – was in Yeltsin’s hands. All he had to do was press the button, and America’s largest cities would be obliterated.
But, 8 minutes into the 10 minute window in which Yeltsin had to make his decision, the rocket started to curve out towards the Arctic Ocean. The strike was cautiously called off; as the Russians later found out, the missile – named Black Brant XII – was a Norwegian-American scientific craft designed to observe the Aurora Borealis. The Russian government had in fact been alerted to the launch in advance, but word had never reached the relevant military authorities.
Apparently, Yeltsin had hesitated when handed the Cheget – after all, the Cold War was over and America was Russia’s ally. What could the reasoning possibly have been? Although the Western and Eastern Blocs had indeed come very close to nuclear war several times during the previous decades – the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the Stanislav Petrov incident in 1983 come to mind – the Black Brant scare was the first and only time one of the “nuclear” leaders had had their hands on the nuclear launch buttons. Despite the strong mechanisms in place that are designed to prevent such a nuclear conflict – “red telephones”, back channel communications, and diplomatic alliances – incidents like the Black Brant scare highlight the fragility of the current nuclear order.