How Boris saved the Kremlin

The strange tale of the Norwegian rocket that sparked a military alert in Russia is more than a comedy of errors. It points to the worrying state of some minds in Moscow. Andrew Higg ins reports

Andrew Higgins
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:05

Kalbjorn Adolssen, the Norwegian scientist Moscow would like to portray as the Dr Strangelove of the new world order, was away from his desk when the Cold War, cold sweat flashback began. The panic soon caught up with him.

Called to the phone during a meeting of fellow scientists, he received a frantic message from his office: what should they say to all the people who kept telephoning to ask if he had launched a missile attack on Moscow?

"My first reaction was that someone was trying to make fun of me," recalls Mr Adolssen, a 57-year-old electronics engineer in charge of Norway's small aerospace research centre on the far northern island of Andoy. "It seemed like a bad practical joke."

Disbelief quickly turned to deep concern. Mr Adolssen rushed back to his office at the Andoy Rocket Range to assure the world that, no matter what was being said in Moscow, he had no intention of starting the Third World War.

All he had done, he told each anxious caller over the phone, was send a harmless, Nasa-funded research rocket on a 23-minute journey terminating at the bottom of the sea. Its purpose, he insisted, was not military but scientific research - like all the 606 previous rockets sent up from Norway's civilian space centre over the past two decades.

The alarm was raised by a report from the Russian news agency, Interfax, released on Wednesday afternoon last week, which said that Russian air defences had shot down an intruding rocket fired from northern Europe. Within minutes, every foreign capital was on the alert. Reuters news agency issued a "bulletin", a label it reserves for top-priority stories.

It was not just the press that lost its head. Russia's troubled President, Boris Yeltsin, later claimed that he was so disturbed by the Norwegian rocket that, for the first time in his presidency, he made use of the nuclear communications "suitcase" keptat his side at all times to provide a hotline link to military commanders during an emergency.

Diplomats were dumbfounded; leaders demanded information; only the world's currency traders knew how to respond. They did what they always do in a moment of crisis: they bought US dollars. It was a money dealer who first spread the bad news to the remotereaches of northern Norway where Mr Adolssen runs the rocket range. Agitated by a sudden surge in the value of the US dollar, a Norwegian bank phoned Mr Adolssen to inquire if he might be responsible.

Real panic faded quickly. Within an hour of its first report, the Interfax news agency declared the story wrong. Its editor, Vyachelav Terekhov, blamed the mistake on erroneous information from a senior military source. But more than a week later, Mr Adolssen is still trying to work out how a routine launch could have triggered such a fit of Cold War paranoia and panic. "I've been in the business since January 1964 and I've never had anything like this happen before," he said.

His 21-metre-long, four-stage rocket, known as a Black Brant 12 and built by a Canadian company, Bristol Aerospace, blasted off from the Andoy Rocket Range at 06.24 GMT on 25 January. The final portion of it ended up, as it was supposed to, in the sea off Spitsbergen, the main island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Throughout its 1,500km journey, it transmitted a steady stream of scientific data about ion acceleration and the Northern Lights. "This was a 100 per cent successful mission from a scientific and technical point of view," Mr Adolssen said. "Until the phone started ringing we were all very happy."

Officially, the episode is now over. After two meetings at the Russian Foreign Ministry, a deputy Russian foreign minister and Norway's ambassador to Moscow, Per Tresselt, declared the case closed - an unfortunate "misunderstanding" that should not be repeated. But the nagging question remains: how, after so many trouble-free rocket launches during the frostiest periods of East-West confrontation, could Russia seriously believe that Norway might lob a missile at the superpower next door?

The incident is worrying, not because Russia or the world was ever in any real danger last week, but because of what it says about the state of mind in Moscow at a time when Russia's military is in turmoil over Chechnya, the United States enjoys undisputed military superiority, and President Yeltsin is desperate to try almost anything to salvage his authority.

Despite Norway's insistence that the Black Brant 12 had no purpose other than scientific research, both Interfax and the respected daily newspaper Izvestia have quoted Russian military officials as saying that it resembled a military missile in trajectory, size and power.

"If nothing else, there seem to be serious gaps in their flow of information over there," said Jack Mendelsohn, the head of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "Mr Yeltsin is prone to exaggeration and braggadocio. This is not very reassuring."

While Russia's diplomats regard the whole episode as an embarrassment and have done their best to forget it, the military and the Kremlin appear to have been revelling in the world's unease. Russia, they say, has proved itself a force to be reckoned with, not to be taken for granted.

Dan Plesch, an expert at the British-American Security Information Council in Washington, sees parallels with Khrushchev's antics in the Sixties, when Moscow obscured its huge military disadvantage in a fog of unnerving bluster. "Making people nervous can be an effective response to weakness," he said. Some Western military observers in Moscow even believe Mr Yeltsin may have made up the entire story of how he used his nuclear "suitcase" just to exacerbate the West's uncertainty.

Also suspect is a suggestion by Mr Yeltsin that the rocket could have been an attempt to probe Russia's early-warning system. "Maybe someone decided to test us a bit," he told journalists during a trip to the provincial Russian town of Lipetsk last Thursday, a day after the Norwegian rocket went up. "The mass media keeps going on, `weak army, weak army', but here they proved themselves, you understand - not a minute passed, immediately we knew from where, at what speed, what trajectory and the spot where it would come down. Is that something to be ashamed of?"

The head of the General Staff, Mikhail Kalesnikov, made an almost identical boast. Russia's military, he said, had proved itself by following the path of the Norwegian rocket via no fewer than three separate tracking stations: "I hope that this conclusion will be shared by those foreign military observers who, after studying material about operations in Chechnya, have rushed to talk of a so-called decline in the military readiness of Russia's armed forces."

The account given by Mr Yeltsin and his military is full of holes. It claims the Norwegian rocket was small, stealthy and unusually difficult to detect. In fact, it was one of the largest ever launched from the Andoy Rocket Range. It weighed about six tons and was loaded with transmitters that made it almost impossible to miss. "Anyone could find it if they were looking at the sky," said Mr Adolssen.

The idea that Norway might use a research rocket to test Russia's defence network is dismissed as barely credible by most experts. "In all the years of the Cold War, I don't believe there was ever a test of Russia's early- warning system involving missiles," said Andrew Duncan, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. "There wereprobes by aircraft on both sides but I don't think either side put up a missile. It is too dangerous."

Short of taking out an advertisement in a Moscow newspaper, Norway did all it could to tell Russia when, where and how the rocket would fly. "We have no secrets. We don't even have a fence around our facility," said Mr Adolssen. "Anyone can come and look." Indeed, among those looking around on the day the Black Brant 12 went up was a Russian scientist, one of scores of researchers who use the Norwegian rocket range each year.

A month before the blast off, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry issued a diplomatic note to all foreign embassies in Oslo advising them of an upcoming "international scientific rocket campaign". It listed three separate launches between 15 January and 10 February. A separate advisory, known as a NOTAM ("notice to air-men"), was put on the Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunications Network, an international open bulletin board for air traffic control and airlines. And on the day of the launch, Norwegian authorities announ-ced specific details of time and place on VHF frequencies used by shipping and informed regional air-traffic control.

From the muddle that surrounds Russia's account of the Norwegian rocket saga, there emerge two explanations for all the fuss: either Moscow really did not know what was happening when Norway launched its rocket, and felt genuinely scared; or it knew exactly what was going on and decided to scare everyone else. Neither explanation is very reassuring.

"I got a bit frightened when I heard about Yeltsin's black suitcase," said Mr Adolssen. "This worried me. We are not involved in this sort of thing. I don't want to get involved either. I'm quite happy with peace."

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