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CDI Russia Weekly Home Edited by David Johnson

#12 - RW 263
HOTLINE: 40 YEARS OF BUILDING UP TRUST
Andrei KISLYAKOV, RIA Novosti political analyst

On June 20, 1963 in Geneva the spokesmen for the Soviet and American foreign ministries signed the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line.

Later dubbed "Hot Line," the Washington-Moscow link was designed to continue to build up trust between the two countries, prevent the use of nuclear weapons as a result of misunderstanding or contradictory information in crisis situations. Moreover, the technical perils inherent in nuclear weapons systems increased the risk of unwarranted launches of ballistic missiles both sides of the ocean especially during crisis situations.

The threat of a global nuclear war has seemingly receded into the past and the risk of unwarranted launches is approaching zero. But local military conflicts with the use of modern military technologies, which have become available not only to industrialised countries but also to large international terrorist groups, can quickly grow into a global military catastrophe. In this situation, the fate of humankind may hinge on a quick and, most importantly, correct reaction of the leaders of the two largest world countries. But taking a substantiated decision is impossible without mutual consultations in real time.

Frightened by the growing military conflict in Korea and becoming fully aware of the fatal possibilities of nuclear weapons, the probability of whose use was looming ever higher in the Korean war, the Soviet Union proposed, in 1954, specific safeguards against surprise attacks. But the Soviet Union and the USA stopped after elaborating technical conditions.

Moscow-Washington relations dramatically deteriorated in October 1962, when the striving of Nikita Khrushchev to deploy Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba provoked the Cuban missile crisis. On October 21 and 22 the world stood at the edge of a third world war, which would have been nuclear.

At that time state leaders could contact each other directly only during a personal meeting. All other official and unofficial negotiations were held through intermediaries. Alexander Feklisov, Soviet station chief in Washington, was one of those unofficial intermediaries. Replying to a question about what could spark off a war, he said in a private talk with an ABC observer: "Mutual fear, misinformation and mistrust can do it."

The leaders of Soviet intelligence suggested that Nikita Khrushchev should discuss the possibility of a direct communications link with President John Kennedy.

The June 20, 1963 memorandum stipulated the establishment of "one full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit, routed Washington-London-Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Moscow" for the transmission of messages. Another duplex radiotelegraph circuit, routed Washington-Tangier-Moscow, was to be used as a reserve link.

Identical terminal points were established in the two capitals and services by top-notch communications men and interpreters. The Moscow terminal point, dubbed the Red Phone, was located in a cell under the Kremlin.

Special transatlantic cable made of the latest insulators was laid in a record short time. The first transatlantic cable linked Ireland and Newfoundland in 1858 but it hardly worked because seawater quickly ate through the cable's insulation. The first workable telephone cable, TAT-1, linked Scotland and Canada in 1956.

The Kremlin leader first used his Red Phone in 1967 during the six-day Arab-Israeli war to prevent possible misunderstanding between the naval groups of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet and the US 6th Fleet, which approached each other dangerously closely in the Mediterranean.

According to Viktor Sukhodrev, the Kremlin interpreter who had worked with Khrushchev and Brezhnev, at first "there was no telephone; there were only simple teletypes, like at any common telegraph. The Soviet leaders had to wait while their words were translated into English and sent by operators to Washington. The teletypes were replaced with a telephone only in the early 1970s, under Leonid Brezhnev."

The rapid technological progress and especially the quickly developing satellite communications and growing amount of information called for modernising the Hot Line. The first stage of modernisation was launched in 1971 and lasted until 1978, when the telephone line was complemented with two satellite communication lines that used US Intelsat communications satellites, poised at a geosynchronous orbit at an altitude of 36,000 km, and the Soviet Molniya II satellites on a highly elliptical orbit. The Washington-Tangier-Moscow radio circuit was terminated.

In 1986, the modernised Hot Line consisting of a voice-transmitter and two improved satellite telephone channels became effective at the joint initiative of the Soviet and American administrations. The Soviet Union used the stationary Gorizont-class satellites, created in the late 1970s and registered with the International Electric Communication Union as the Statsionar system. The Russian satellite group working for the Hot Line is controlled from the Vladimir space communications centre set up in 1971.

But the main innovation of the Hot Line reactivated in 1986 was a high-speed facsimile transmission capacity. Today this capacity allows the two leaders to quickly exchange large amounts of information, including the graphic images of operations maps, diagrams and tables.

A recent example is the war and post-war settlement in Iraq, when the Red Phone became a genuine instrument of trust. It allowed the two presidents to elaborate well-considered and substantiated positions regarding the restoration of peace after this most recent Middle East war.

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