Saving the world

05 January 2023

Principal consultant Aidan Rave introduces the man whose refusal to slavishly follow the rules saved the world.

Have you ever met the person who saved your life?

No? Well, let me introduce you to Mr Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov. You might not know him but on the evening of 26 September 1983, he saved your life and probably that of your children and your children’s children.

Stanislav was in many ways an unremarkable officer in the midst of a relatively unremarkable career in the Soviet air defence force. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he did something truly remarkable.

On that day in 1983 relations between east and west were in a parlous state, driven by a number of interrelated events including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US deployment of cruise missiles in Europe and a general ratcheting up of bellicose rhetoric.

Added to this was the recent shooting down of a Korean airliner by a Soviet fighter jet and the culmination of a widescale NATO military exercise called Able Archer 83 – which unbeknown to the west, was being viewed by a paranoid Soviet leadership as a clandestine operation and prelude to an actual attack – just had Germany had done some 40 years earlier in the run up to Operation Barbarossa.

The cold war seemed in very real danger of turning hot at any moment, with incalculable consequences for humanity. All it would take was a spark…

Suddenly, in the command bunker, Petrov was confronted by a launch warning, with initially one, quickly followed by four more missiles seemingly inbound to Soviet targets. With literally seconds to digest this information and with Soviet military doctrine based on ‘launch on warning’ (i.e., retaliation is based on the warning, not waiting for the missiles to hit), Petrov had to decide his next move.

Moment of truth

Standard procedure would be to immediately inform his superiors, who would in turn notify the politburo, who would then issue the launch codes – a well-practiced procedure that take little more than 30 seconds to complete. Other than Petrov, no one else in the world knew at that precise moment that they were potentially 30 seconds away from annihilation.

As he stared at the screen with its warning messages and flashing red lights, two thoughts immediately occurred to Petrov. One, if the US was going to launch a surprise attack, it would surely do so with more than five missiles, knowing as they did about the ‘launch on warning’ retaliation policy. Two, Petrov was acutely aware of the likely response from high command, given the febrile political environment and the paranoid state of the ageing Soviet leadership.

So, instead of alerting his superiors, he did nothing.

Within minutes, his decision was vindicated. It turns out that unusual stratospheric cloud formations had somehow convinced the early warning system of an attack, when no such attack was underway.

While we’ll never truly know the alternative reality, given the context of the time, the odds of a retaliatory strike by the Soviets must have been extremely high. Without realising it (the events of that day remained classified for a further 15 years), the world had unwittingly wandered perilously close to the gates of Armageddon.

Good or bad governance?

The question of whether this is an example of good or poor governance is an interesting one. Surely, good governance is rooted in clear procedures, agreed within the organisation and executed by disciplined and well-trained staff. Petrov was well-trained, knew the procedures and understood the significance of the responsibility he held.

So, is Petrov a governance hero or villain?

Context is the critical factor. Of course, rules and obedience to them are a critical element of good governance – without them we have little more than anarchy. However, organisations are dynamic entities that exist in an equally dynamic environment and in such circumstances, not everything works in neatly prescribed sequences.

Neither can good governance flourish if the stewards of it are little more than automatons, slavishly following rules and procedures without bringing the benefit of their insight, experiences, judgement and past mistakes to contribute to decision-making.

While procedures and discipline will always be central to good governance, they must be interpreted by individuals who through their judgement, integrity and accountability are wise enough and brave enough to occasionally raise the red flag and alert others to the dangers of unforeseen consequences.

That’s why we have the ‘freedom to speak up’ guardians in the NHS and other similar roles in many other organisations. It’s why during the inquest into countless historical disasters, more often than not a critical moment can be traced whereby either through commission or omission, someone was either unwilling or unable to speak up and challenge the orthodoxy. Take a look at the enquiry into the 1986 Challenger disaster for a poignant example of this.

Stanislav Petrov was without question a governance hero. He used his judgement, insight and experience to inform his decision under the most intense pressure and despite the negative consequences for him personally (his actions illustrating system failures that would lead to unacceptable embarrassment to his military and political superiors), he did the right thing.

Stanislav Petrov died in 2017. He received no reward for his actions that night and spent his final years in relative poverty, but for those of us who uphold the virtue of good governance, perhaps we should all take a little inspiration from him.

Meet the author: Aidan Rave

Principal Consultant

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Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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