60 years later, the red telephone between the United States and Russia still useful

60 years later, the red telephone between the United States and Russia still useful

The red telephone is neither a telephone nor red. But it does exist. Since August 30, 1963, this direct line of communication has connected in the event of an emergency the Pentagon – the American Department of Defense in Washington – and the Kremlin – the seat of Russian power in Moscow. The first messages from the red telephone were transmitted by teletypewriter. Then by fax in the 1980s. Today, the exchange takes place via secure email on computers which are no less secure.

The idea of ​​establishing a direct and rapid transmission channel between the two superpowers was born in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, in October 1962: while the world was on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, for many hours had passed before Presidents Kennedy and Khrushchev could take note – through their respective embassies – of their latest exchanges and agree on a compromise. The world had trembled as it realized that it had come so close to the abyss. The armed forces of both countries were placed on high alert: a maneuvering error aboard a ship or a submarine, off the coast of Cuba, would have sufficed for a dramatic process. In the era of nuclear deterrence governed by “the theory of mutually assured destruction” (you will not attack me because you know that my response would mean your annihilation), it became imperative to set up an urgent line of communication summit in order to avoid any accidental escalation fatal to humanity.

Essential insurance

Sixty years later, the direct line remains relevant. And for good reason: 69% of Americans believe a nuclear war is possible in the next five years, according to a poll carried out last November. “A level of anxiety not seen since the Cuban crisis,” notes Peter Kuznick, director of the Institute for Nuclear Studies at American University in Washington. The diplomatic negotiations around the Russo-Ukrainian conflict carried out by Turkey – in the summer of 2022, for the exchange of prisoners – and by Saudi Arabia – this summer, concerning the fate of Ukrainian children taken to Russia – have confirmed that the scenario of a rapid settlement of the conflict was not considered credible, for the moment, neither in Washington nor in Moscow.

In any case, the red telephone is not intended to open negotiations but to avoid any military excitement following a misunderstanding or a calculation error on the ground. This link also allows you to send messages discreetly. If Joe Biden publicly warned Vladimir Putin against any aggression towards a NATO member following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it is through this more discreet channel that he informs of the red lines set for the Ukrainian side in the use of American weapons delivered to Kiev.

Previously, the red telephone was used in numerous crises: the Six-Day War in 1967, that between India and Pakistan in 1971, or even that of Yom Kippur in 1973. Each time, it was used to the American president or his Soviet counterpart to reassure his interlocutor of the shared desire to see the conflict contained and to prevent tension from degenerating from a poor assessment of the adversary’s military movements.

A line with China?

Can this code of good conduct, implemented during the Cold War and based on a minimum of mutual trust, still work? Vladimir Putin’s credit within the American political-military establishment has been seriously devalued for at least a decade. The Russian leader has continued to lie to his White House correspondents. Barack Obama experienced this in 2014, when he was confronted with a denial of any Russian responsibility in the commando intervention in Ukraine. And in October 2016, when he warned the Kremlin against interfering in the US electoral process. Worried about the growing risks of armed incidents in the China Sea, where ships and planes of the US Navy and the Chinese navy often come across in dangerous proximity, Joe Biden, who continues to believe that Putin is “rational” but that he has “bad information”, declared that he wanted to set up an additional “red phone” with Beijing. President Xi has yet to follow up. However, as former CIA boss and former Secretary of State Robert Gates summarizes it, “as long as (nuclear) submarines prowl the depths of the oceans and both parties have missiles pointed at the one on top of the other, the world will still need the red telephone.”

Similar Posts