Most Dangerous Game: Near-Nuke Clash in Ukraine

May 10th, 2023 - by James Bamford / The Nation


US Air Force RC-135V River Joint reconnaissance aircraft.

How Shadow War Over Ukraine
Nearly Triggered a Nuclear Holocaust
James Bamford / The Nation

Unnoticed among the trove of documents in the Pentagon leak is this account of how a miscommunication between a Russian pilot and his base came perilously close to starting World War III.

(April 27, 2023) — A little-known front in the battle for Ukraine is getting a lot hotter. Unnoticed by the world’s press, this shadow war has the potential to turn what so far has remained largely a regional conflict into an all-out nuclear war.

On September 29, 2022, a British electronic surveillance plane assigned to NATO took off from RAF Waddington in England, flew over Europe, and headed to the Black Sea. Its mission — codenamed Rivet Joint — was to eavesdrop on military and intelligence communications taking place in Russian-controlled Crimea.

The aircraft, an RC-135W (a variant of a Boeing 707), was manned by a crew of about 30, and had an exterior covered with a porcupine-like array of antennas.

It was a very dangerous time. Just three days earlier, in a deliberate act of war, saboteurs had blown up the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines resting on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Almost immediately — but without offering any evidence — both Russia and the United States began pointing fingers of blame at each other. Thus, by the time the British spy plane began its surveillance flight off the volatile Crimean coast, tensions between the US and Russia had greatly escalated. Adding to Moscow’s anger was the likelihood that the flights — increased from every 10 days to four flights a week — were able to intercept vast amounts of sensitive military communications as well as target its entire “electronic order of battle.”

To counter these flights, Russian fighters would regularly take to the skies to observe, and occasionally harass, the spy planes.

According to a Pentagon document marked SECRET/NOFORN (allegedly leaked by Airman Jack Teixeira on a Discord group chat), as the British RC-135W entered the airspace above the Black Sea that September morning, a pair of Russian SU-27 fighters scrambled skyward to shadow him. Then, responding to an order from his command center (likely Belbek Airbase on Crimea) a Russian pilot launched a missile directly at the NATO reconnaissance jet packed with 30 or more Royal Air Force personnel.

In that moment, the Russian fighter pilot came very close to igniting World War III. Under NATO’s treaty, if one member of the military alliance falls victim to an armed attack, all members of the alliance are obliged to consider it an attack on all of them — and to collectively respond.

The only thing that saved the dozens of British crew members from what the secret US documents called a “near shoot down” was a technical glitch that caused the missile to miss its target. And it was another glitch that caused the pilot to fire the missile in the first place.

As revealed in the massive trove of recently leaked secret Pentagon documents, the firing was due to a miscommunication between the fighter pilot and his base. As a result, the spy planes are now escorted by a pair of British Typhoon fighters while operating over the Black Sea. While protecting the RC-135 aircraft, this change in procedure also increases the danger of an airborne shoot-out between NATO and Russian fighters.

The key takeaway from the incident is that the longer the deadly proxy war between NATO and Russia goes on, the greater the chances of more accidental “gliches” leading to an all-out nuclear war. And as with past conflicts, it is often intelligence — particularly the misuse of intelligence — that provides the incendiary spark.

In theory, the US intelligence community is designed to keep the United States out of wars by providing early warning of potential threats. In reality, it is the misuse of intelligence that has repeatedly gotten the US into wars — wars that end up as disasters leaving millions of innocent people dead and tens of millions more wounded and homeless.

In Vietnam, in the summer of 1964, the National Security Agency wanted to collect signals intelligence on North Vietnamese coastal positions, so a series of illegal covert operations was launched along the coast to deliberately probe their defenses and trigger hostile reactions. Those responses allowed signals intelligence specialists aboard the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy, cruising in North Vietnamese territorial waters, to intercept communications and radar signals.

On August 4, both ships reported that they had come under attack by North Vietnamese gunboats. Shortly thereafter, they realized that this was bad intelligence, and that in fact there was no evidence of an attack. But the Johnson administration chose to use the original bad NSA intelligence as a pretext for launching a war against Vietnam — a decade-long slaughter that eventually left 2,050,000 people dead, according to the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal.

Nearly 40 years later, another president, George W. Bush, was once again determined to get the US into an illegal war — this time in Iraq. And once again, a president deliberately used bad intelligence as the basis for launching an attack. Despite a clear lack of intelligence that any weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, both NSA director Michael Hayden and CIA director George Tenet, happy to play yes-men to the president, went along with Bush’s claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was in possession of such weapons.

In the end, the lies and bad intelligence were responsible for another 655,000 deaths, mostly civilians, according to a survey conducted by the British journal The Lancet. Yet unlike with Russia, no sanctions were ever imposed on the United States or its allies for their illegal invasion of Iraq. Nor has President Bush been charged with war crimes.

James Bamford is a best-selling author, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and winner of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. His most recent book is Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America’s Counterintelligence, published by Twelve Books.

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