Those were the days my friend – 1995


The Year started badly. During the previous December, Moscow in response to Dhokar Dudayev’s declaration of Independence for Chechnya had begun to bombard Grozny, initially from the air and then by ground assault. Some of the first Russian troops into the combat were the 131st Maikop Motor Rifle Brigade. Conscripted, young and poorly trained they endured horrific casualties against the well organised guerilla tactics of the embedded rebels. Come January, Russia upped the intensity of the bombing and shelling particularly after the death of one of its front line leaders Major General Vorobyov. The city was gradually pulverized and reports of large numbers of civilian casualties began to emerge, ironically many of them from the large Russian community that existed at the time (reliable estimates put the final total of civilian deaths at 30,000). Eventually the rebel soldiers withdrew to their mountain strongholds as they had done on previous occasions when defending against invading Russian armies. The world looked on, with many Western Governments condemning the severity of the Russian actions.

What few know is that during that January against this backdrop of violence an incident occurred that almost resulted in the unthinkable, the end of civilisation as we know it. The ‘Black Brandt’ rocket incident arose from a series of events that occurred with such speed that the world was moments from catastrophe due to a simple human error; a level of incompetence that would be amusing had it not been so serious.

The Rocket base at Adnoy island off the north coast of Norway had existed since the early sixties and had made over 1,200 launches. The main purpose of the base was to launch low orbit satellites and instruments with lightweight rockets for the study of the atmosphere above the arctic. On January 25th 1995, a particular mission was underway by a joint American-Norwegian team to launch a more powerful four-stage Black Brandt XII rocket to position instruments to observe the aurora borealis over Svalbard. As was normal for such missions, notifications were issued well ahead of time to all neighbouring governments and space agencies including Russia to warn of the rocket’s launch and planned trajectory.

Unfortunately on this occasion the notice of the launch was not conveyed internally to that agency of the Russian Ministry of Defence responsible for early radar detection. The Olenogorsk station in Murmansk Oblast duly picked up the rocket’s launch which due to its proximity to the sea gave the appearance that it could have in fact been from a submarine. Even today, Trident missiles represent a grave threat to Russia’s security being mobile and with their ability to be launched close to the continent so reducing the time for detection and interception. The situation worsened because as the radar station computed the rocket’s trajectory it appeared that its flight path was becoming coincidental with that which would be taken in the event of an attack by Minuteman III ICBM’s stationed in Dakota and aimed at Moscow. As the stages fell away the craft more and more resembled a Trident. Russia’s air defences were already highly sensitive to intrusion, the Minister of Defence and the Head of the Air Defence Force having been dismissed years earlier when Mattias Rust humiliated the nation by piloting his Cessna unchallenged from Finland and landing on the bridge next to St. Basil’s.

Moscow was notified and the nuclear briefcase or ‘Cheget’ in Russian was armed ready for launch against America and bought to President Yeltsin with the warning that potential impact was 10 minutes away. The initial fear was that the missile might be intended as a pre-emptive electromagnetic blast above Moscow that would render further detection and missile defences inoperable, leaving Moscow open to attack by ICBM’s and unable to launch a retaliatory strike.
No-one can be sure of the thought processes, conversations and communications that took place during those critical minutes on a cold and wintry January morning, but Russia did not retaliate and the Black Brandt rocket eventually altered course as planned and finally fell into the sea. Some days later a spokesman for the Russian Government issued a brief statement confirming that an incident had indeed occurred.

The bloodshed in Chechnya continued that year famously spilling over when the rebel leader Shamil Basayev lead a convoy of fighters into Russia to Buddyanovsk in neighbouring Stavropol Krai and raided various government buildings before holing up in the city’s main hospital and taking around 1,500 hostages. After days of attack by Government forces followed by negotiation and hostage exchange, Basayev’s men largely made it back to their mountain stronghold. Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, who had stepped in to negotiate personally and end the bloodshed famously summed it up ‘we tried for the best, but it turned out as usual’.