Between Washington and Moscow, the “red phone” is heating up again
It’s just a “red phone” in the movies, but crisis communications between Washington and Moscow, opened during the Cold War, have resumed amid Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
That was confirmed by Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s chief national security adviser.
On September 25, when a journalist asked him if the “red phone was working again,” he replied on NBC: “The answer to your question is yes.”
Before specifying: “We have the ability to speak directly at a high level (to the Russians), to tell them clearly what our message is and to hear theirs.”
“It’s happened a lot over the past few months, it’s happened even over the past few days,” said Jake Sullivan, who declined to provide details on the exact nature of the communication channels used to “protect them” or the frequency of the exchanges.
The term “red phone” has come to denote all high-level confidential contacts of an urgent nature between Washington and Moscow.
– missile crisis –
But it’s a very specific device to begin with, established in 1963 between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis shook the world.
The lack of direct communication favors speculation about the intentions of the opposing camp and thus the risk of a nuclear escalation. It then takes several hours to transfer, translate and encrypt the messages between Moscow and Washington.
The two countries will then negotiate in minute detail to set up a fast and direct communication system that is extremely secure.
On June 20, 1963, the “Agreement between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link,” the first bilateral treaty between the two powers, was signed in Geneva.
In the film “Doctor Strangelove”, US President Merkin Muffley has a tragi-comic conversation on the phone with “Dimitri” in Moscow about an impending nuclear apocalypse.
In reality, the two capitals communicate via written messages that are encrypted and transmitted over thousands of kilometers of cable (Washington-London-Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Moscow) and over a radio link.
According to a 2013 Smithsonian Magazine article, the first message sent by Americans is “The quick brown fox jumped over the back of the lazy dog 1234567890”.
Which doesn’t mean much, but has the advantage of using all possible characters to test the hardware.
The system was modernized in 1971, replaced by satellite links and terminals installed in the two countries – on the American side, the connection reached the Pentagon, which itself was connected to the White House crisis room, the “Situation Room”.
– Shakespeare and Chekhov –
In a 1988 article, The New York Times Magazine compared the Pentagon room to “the computer room of a well-equipped high school” and reported how the system was tested hourly every day, with unrelated news : “Americans sometimes broadcast Shakespeare, Russians Chekhov.”
In 1994, a new system enabled defense officials from both countries to be reachable almost constantly.
The United States has always kept secret the number of uses of this secure connection.
According to the US State Department, she served in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and then in the 1973 War.
The line would have been heated up during the USSR invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, according to various press reports, and would have been used extensively during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, with exchanges covering Lebanon and Poland.
According to the NBC chain or the Washington Post, on October 31, 2016, former President Barack Obama used the “red phone” – actually a highly secure email – to give a solemn warning to Vladimir Putin about a disruption in the upcoming US presidential election .
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