When Boris Yeltsin's Hangover Saved the World

Party like it's 1995. (AP file photo)

Party like it’s 1995.
(AP file photo)

Allow Kelsey D. Atherton to take you back to a cold winter’s night in 1995:

On January 25, Norwegian and American scientists had warned thirty countries (including Russia) that they were going to launch a Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket (a research rocket that collects atmospheric data) from the Andøya Rocket Range on the northwest coast of Norway. This rocket was designed to simply collect data on the aurora borealis, but it had the unfortunate aspect of looking like something much more menacing due to its trajectory over the North Pole. To Russia, it looked like this could have been a nuclear missile launched from a Minuteman-III silo in North Dakota. It is important to note that even though Moscow was informed of the launch and trajectory, that warning never got to the Olenegorsk radar station, which only saw an alarming blip on their screens.

At this point in history, both the United States and Russia had a “launch-on-warning” policy of nuclear missiles. That is to say that if one nation believed it was being attacked, they would launch retaliatory nuclear missiles before the enemy rockets had a chance to impact; after all, the threat of mutually assured destruction only works if both sides participate. Russian nuclear forces were immediately put on alert, and a frightened country that had a stockpile of 27,000 nuclear weapons with 4,000 on a hair trigger was coming face-to-face with the possibility of using them to potentially end millions of lives with the push of a few buttons. Advisors rushed to Yeltsin and apparently woke him at 2 a.m. wherein he had less than 10 minutes to decide the fate of the world after arming his nuclear football, also known as the “Cheget”. My question to the world is this: Was the only reason the launch order wasn’t given (as it should have under the doctrine at the time) because Yeltsin liked to kick back too much vodka?


Vodka — is there anything it can’t do?

In any case, you’ll definitely want to read the whole thing.


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