On 26 September 1983, the nuclear early-warning radar of the Soviet Union reported the launch of one intercontinental ballistic missile with four more missiles behind it, from bases in the United States. These missile attack warnings were suspected to be false alarms by Stanislav Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces on duty at the command center of the early-warning system. He decided to wait for corroborating evidence—of which none arrived—rather than immediately relaying the warning up the chain-of-command. This decision is seen as having prevented a retaliatory nuclear attack against the United States and its NATO allies, which would likely have resulted in an escalation to a full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the satellite warning system later determined that the system had indeed malfunctioned.
The incident occurred at a time of severely strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Responding to the Soviet Union's deployment of fourteen SS-20/RSD-10 theatre nuclear missiles, the NATO Double-Track Decision was taken in December 1979 by the military commander of NATO to deploy 108 Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe with the ability to hit targets in eastern Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania within 10 minutes and the longer range, but slower BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) to strike potential targets farther to the east. In mid-February 1981, and continuing until 1983, psychological operations by the United States began. These were designed to test Soviet radar vulnerability and to demonstrate US nuclear capabilities. They included clandestine naval operations, in the Barents, Norwegian, Black, and Baltic seas and near the GIUK gap, as well as flights by American bombers, occasionally several times per week, directly toward Soviet airspace that turned away only at the last moment.