Ukraine Has Become Putin’s Cuban Missile Crisis

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Sixty years ago Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took a huge gamble and lost. Within two years he was out of power. 

Cold warriors.
Cold warriors.Source: Central Press/Hulton Archive via Getty Images


Max Hastings. BLOOMBERG

23 octobre 2022

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Max Hastings is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A former editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, he is author, most recently, of “Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942.”

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Not merely for the past few decades, but for the past several centuries, Western leaders have grappled with an intractable problem: How to understand what Russia, the growling bear, thinks it is doing?  

Most conspicuously, on the morning of Oct. 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers racked their brains at the Cabinet Room table over the motivation for the Soviet Union’s deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. “Well, it’s a goddam mystery to me,” said Kennedy. “I don’t know enough about the Soviet Union, but if anybody can tell me any other time since the [1948-49] Berlin Blockade where the Russians have given us so clear a provocation, I don’t know when it’s been.” More fromBloomberg Opinion

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A large part of the story of the 12 days that followed, which are at the heart of my new book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, is that of some of the smartest people in the US were struggling to figure out the Russian game plan, and mostly getting it wrong. Many guessed, for instance, that it might be a diversionary ploy before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made his big move against West Berlin.

When a Soviet anti-aircraft missile downed an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Cuba on Oct. 14, the White House assumed it represented a deliberate escalation by the Kremlin, instead of what it really was: a rogue initiative by a local commander. Even two weeks later, as Khrushchev announced his humiliating retreat — withdrawal of the ballistic missiles from Cuba — the chiefs of staff insisted that this was a Soviet trick ahead of “diplomatic blackmail.” They renewed their demands for an immediate invasion of the island.

Which brings us to the here and now. On the publicity round for the book, I am constantly asked to compare the threat in 1962 to what the world faces 60 years on, in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The proper response is, of course, that nothing is quite the same twice. There is today no direct confrontation between Russia and the US. Nobody believes that President Joe Biden will launch a nuclear strike against Russia unless the continental US faces such an attack, which remains mercifully unlikely, as did not seem the case to Westerners in 1962.

In some respects, the 2022 situation is more intractable. In the missile crisis, there were few casualties: the U-2 pilot, Rudolf Anderson, along with the accidental deaths of several aircrew. Today, by contrast, tens of thousands have already perished due to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. 

Next, while Khrushchev’s missile deployment in Cuba was seen by the US as an outrageous provocation, there was no more valid legal objection to the Cubans choosing to host Soviet missiles than to the Turks, British and Italians accepting American ones. 

In 2022, however, Putin has not a shred of legal or moral justification for his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Whereas Kennedy was able to offer Khrushchev a deal for removing his missiles, it is much harder to see what President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine or Biden can today concede to Putin without rewarding his atrocities (except possibly Russian retention of Crimea, which it annexed after the 2014 invasion). 

Whereas none of the players in the missile crisis suffered significant material loss, Russia has inflicted upon Ukraine hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure damage, not to mention economic havoc. It is unrealistic to suppose that even a successor Kremlin regime, should Putin fall, will pay cash reparations. It is also tough to see how the West, never mind Ukraine, can return to business as usual, even if Russia’s surviving tanks go home.

Yet I see one important common theme between 1962 and 2022: the mindset that causes Russia to launch reckless overseas adventures that destroy trust in its word and rationality, in its prestige and the interests of its own people. 

Remember Kennedy’s expression of bafflement on the first morning of the missile crisis. Just as it was then hard to imagine how Khrushchev expected to get away with his Cuban deployment, who in 2021 imagined that Putin would launch an assault in which Russia was certain to become a principal economic and political victim, if not a military one? Not me, for one.

Western intelligence chiefs point with pride to the fact that they flagged in advance not only the Russian capability to invade Ukraine, but also Putin’s intention — and yet no Western leader did much about it until it was too late to stop him. In the same fashion, in 1962, Central Intelligence Agency boss John McCone insisted from August onward, with repeated warnings to the White House, that the Russians were installing nuclear weapons in Cuba. 

Yet those intelligence successes must be measured against the background that the CIA and the UK Secret Intelligence Service get much wrong — recall the historic catastrophe of their 2002 belief in Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Plenty of wolves get cried by spooks on both sides of the Atlantic, and our political leaders deserve sympathy for treating all intelligence briefs with caution, if not skepticism. McCone, in the months before the missile crisis, had urged the White House to launch a faked Cuban assault on the US base at Guantanamo Bay, to justify taking out the Castro regime.

I am among those who believe that it was right and honorable for Kennedy to seek détente with the Soviet Union before Khrushchev double-crossed him, and honorable likewise for Western leaders since the end of the Cold War to have attempted to treat both China and Russia as fellow members of the civilized international community — even if such efforts are now seen to have failed. Our statesmen, instead of being denounced as useful idiots, should be respected for having been seen to try.

Rapprochement with Moscow has foundered upon the reef of Russian grievance, victimhood and brutish cruelty — which since the 17th century have impeded the nation’s foreign relationships, especially with Europe.

It was knowledge of his own nation’s weakness, and rage against Western success, that underpinned Khrushchev’s desperate gamble in Cuba. The same forces influence Putin’s conduct today. Both men sought a status for their nation on the world stage that its economic and social achievements could not earn. In the absence of affection, trust or respect, they have striven to generate fear through extreme violence.

The British writer Orlando Figes, author of a succession of brilliant works on Russian history, recently published a new bookThe Story of Russia, which explores the manner in which the nation has for centuries sought to invent and revise the narrative of its own past. The first tsar, Ivan the Terrible, who assumed power in 1547, professed to trace his descent from the Roman emperor Augustus.

Russia has no natural frontiers of land or sea, which causes each of its successive leaders to make an arbitrary selection about where the nation’s border should stand, heedless of the wishes of local peoples. Peter the Great, who became tsar in 1682, conceived that Russia had a “civilizing mission” in Asia.   

Catherine the Great, who was born in Germany, decreed in 1767: “Russia is a European state,” and expected to exercise hegemony over swathes of its near neighborhood. Long before the Bolshevik revolution, successive regimes dealt harshly with dissidents and historians who questioned the Kremlin’s version of either its national narrative or declared entitlements. 

Geography is unsurprisingly influential in influencing Russia’s ability to dominate its own periphery, and in limiting the ability of those localities’ nationalist movements and the Western powers to contain its ambitions. For long periods, Moscow or St. Petersburg — each has served as the nation’s capital — claimed Poland, Finland and the Baltic States as integral parts of the nation, just as today Putin claims Ukraine.

Last week, I chanced upon a letter the young Winston Churchill wrote to a friend in 1896, discussing the Irish nationalist movement. He asserted cheerily that Britain was no more likely to surrender hegemony over Ireland than was Germany to yield Alsace-Lorraine, Austria to give up Hungary — or Russia to relinquish Poland. Today, of course, none of those four possessions he cited still belongs to its then-owner. Frontiers are not immutable.

None of the above is intended for a moment to justify Putin’s monstrous conduct, merely to set it in context. An astonishing number even of Russian liberals believe that Ukraine rightfully belongs within their polity. This helps to explain why Putin’s war still commands substantial domestic support, even if that is faltering since he ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists. Many Russians hate and resent the West for its perceived condescension. 

Likewise, in November 1962, when we saw Kennedy as having secured victory by forcing withdrawal of the Soviet missiles, a 28-year-old Moscow diarist named Romen Nazirov wrote defiantly: “Khrushchev has saved the world from the threat of a nuclear war. American newspapers reported his decision to withdraw the bases with headlines like ‘Reds are Retreating from Cuba,’ etc. They are even mocking us. But Khrushchev’s moral victory is obvious. As for prestige … well let them laugh.” Then he quoted the French phrase for, “He who laughs last laughs best.” 

The West is nonetheless in little doubt that Kennedy was the big winner in 1962, for reasons of which we should remind ourselves. First, he knew that the Kremlin knew that the US possessed overwhelming nuclear superiority in the event of a showdown. Next, Khrushchev launched his huge gamble on an island just 90 miles from the North American continent, in a region where the US possessed almost absolute sea, air and potential land dominance. 

Kennedy, unlike his almost insanely bellicose military commanders, was willing to strike a bargain with Moscow to get the missiles out. He gave a public assurance, which holds to this day, that the US would never again launch military action against Cuba. He also gave a private assurance that if the Soviet weapons went home, America’s Jupiter missiles in Turkey would likewise be repatriated. 

The Kennedy administration went to immense lengths to preserve the secrecy of the latter, which would have enraged conservative America. Kennedy even lied to his presidential predecessor, assuring Dwight D. Eisenhower that he had made no undisclosed concessions to Moscow to secure Soviet surrender. 

Finally, nobody in the Kremlin doubted that the US possessed both the means and the will to go to war unless the missiles were removed. This confronted Khrushchev with the starkest possible choice. On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 28, he told an emergency meeting of the Soviet Presidium at a dacha outside Moscow: “We find ourselves face to face with the threat of war and nuclear catastrophe, as a result of which human civilization may perish. To save humanity, we should retreat.”

The Presidium endorsed Khrushchev’s public declaration of surrender, though the comrades never forgave him. When they ousted him from power two years later, a procession of speakers at the decisive meeting cited the humiliation he had forced on the Soviet Union by his actions in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Today, Putin appears to wield greater untrammeled power than Khrushchev in 1962, and also to be a less stable and rational personality. I doubt that any national leader or intelligence chief in the West feels confident of what the Kremlin’s tenant, with his back to the wall, will or will not initiate. 

An informed military friend offers me only one prediction: that if Putin falls — which is certainly plausible, if not yet probable — we should not assume that his successor will prove a more congenial negotiating partner, or make Russia a less threatening neighbor to Zelenskiy and his people.

It is a strategic difficulty for the West that whereas Cuba lay next to America, Ukraine lies beside Russia. While the Soviet Union in 1962 was vastly outgunned by the US in the weapons that mattered most, today Russia owns the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. We all live daily with the fear that, the more humiliating Putin’s predicament becomes, the greater the risk that he will continue to escalate. 

None of us can predict the outcome of this murderous clash, which is likely to be much further protracted before it reaches any sort of outcome. The only certainty is that Putin’s monstrous act of aggression has banished, perhaps for decades, any prospect that Russia can resume normal relations with the West.

Putin, in the latest of many Russian attempts catalogued by Figes to fantasize the country’s past, now embraces as its founding father the figure of Grand Prince Vladimir, the 10th-century ruler of Kievan Rus. He has caused hundreds of statues of this hitherto obscure figure to be erected and revered. It is questionable whether Putin himself believes this tale. He finds it serviceable, however, and thus it is promoted as part of the national narrative adopted in every Russian school. 

Figes wrote, even before the invasion of Ukraine: “Russia appears to be trapped in a repeating cycle of its history. Slowly, [it] is retreating from Europe. An outcast from the European world it sought to join for much of its past, it must now find a new role as a large but fossil-fuel-dependent regional power between Europe and China.”

Mankind has a duty to be optimistic, and thus we should cheer ourselves by recalling that three decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the brink of catastrophe, the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia enjoyed a brief, albeit chaotic, period of democracy and relative freedom. Perhaps our children will look back on the Ukraine war as marking the beginning of the end of Putinist tyranny. 

I, however, am not so ardent a believer in fairy tales that I can foresee Russia living in comfortable community with the West any time soon. Our success and its relative failure will continue to dog the relationship. Moscow’s nuclear arsenal will continue to represent its only poisonous claim on parity with or even superiority over us.           

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