Putin puts Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on alert

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It’s October 1962, the height of the Cuban missile crisis, and there’s a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean that’s been spotted by the American Navy. President Kennedy has blockaded Cuba. No sea traffic is permitted through.

The sub is hiding in the ocean, and the Americans are dropping depth charges left and right of the hull. Inside, the sub is rocking, shaking with each new explosion. What the Americans don’t know is that this sub has a tactical nuclear torpedo on board, available to launch, and that the Russian captain is asking himself, Shall I fire?

The Russian in question, an exhausted, nervous submarine commander named Valentin Savitsky, decided to do it. He ordered the nuclear-tipped missile readied. His second in command approved the order. Moscow hadn’t communicated with its sub for days. Eleven U.S. Navy ships were nearby, all possible targets. The nuke on this missile had roughly the power of the bomb at Hiroshima.

“We’re gonna blast them now!”
Temperatures in the submarine had climbed above 100 degrees. The air-conditioning system was broken, and the ship couldn’t surface without being exposed. The captain felt doomed. Vadim Orlov, an intelligence officer who was there, remembers a particularly loud blast: “The Americans hit us with something stronger than the grenades—apparently with a practice depth bomb,” he wrote later. “We thought, That’s it, the end.” And that’s when, he says, the Soviet captain shouted, “Maybe the war has already started up there … We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

But it didn’t happen, because that’s when Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov steps into the story.

The exact details are controversial. The way it’s usually told is that each of the three Soviet submarine captains in the ocean around Cuba had the power to launch a nuclear torpedo if—and only if—he had the consent of all three senior officers on board. On his sub, Savitsky gave the order and got one supporting vote, but Arkhipov balked. He wouldn’t go along.

He argued that this was not an attack.

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