Never in history has Russia made such stupid decisions. Russian General Leonid Ivashov
What can we learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis way back in 1962 that might be useful in navigating Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats today? Here are some thoughts.
Although the chance of nuclear war – all-out nuclear holocaust – was far greater in 1962 with Khrushchev than it is today with Putin, Kennedy and his team kept their heads. The prospect of millions of people dying is certainly an understandable reason to panic, but in fact panicking is a surer way to get to that terrible outcome.
The same is true in Ukraine. When people panic they immediately fall into appeasement mode, vastly increasing the odds that Putin – and other autocratic leaders – will threaten nuclear war again and again, until it finally happens.
Keep the saber-rattler guessing
As the US gradually increased its military preparations in 1962, Khrushchev had no real idea what the Americans had in mind. A nuclear attack on the Cuban missiles? A nuclear attack on the Soviet homeland itself? A massive-but-conventional attack? This uncertainly contributed profoundly to Khrushchev’s increasing emotional instability.
This is also the strategy President Biden and NATO are using against Putin today. If Putin deploys a tactical nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb, will the West respond in kind, firing tactical nukes at Russian troops? Will they instead massively increase assistance to the Ukraine military, perhaps even sending in NATO troops? Will they sink the Russian Black Sea fleet? Putin doesn’t know and that uncertainty is an important part of what stays his hand.
Don’t underestimate your opponent
The major mistake Khrushchev made in 1962 was underestimating JFK. That error was understandable, given Kennedy’s poor performance in the summit meeting a year earlier. But it was still a very serious mistake, and by the time Khrushchev realized it, it was too late.
And Vladimir Putin has already made the same mistake. He had convinced himself that the West in general and the US in particular were in precipitous decline. The West would whine and complain but ultimately do nothing when the Russians invaded Ukraine. He was profoundly wrong, and by the time he realized it, it was, as with Khrushchev, too late.
Don’t overestimate yourself
This was another mistake Khrushchev made – he believed that he could dominate JFK and he believed that, even if America had more nukes than the USSR, the former would still be intimidated by the nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. He proved to be wrong on both counts. JFK dominated Khrushchev and America’s massive lead in warheads, missiles, bombers, and submarines gave the Americans the conviction – possibly wrong – that they could survive a nuclear war and the Soviet Union couldn’t.
For years, Vladimir Putin has gotten away with murder. In Chechnya, Georgia, the Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria, Putin breached international law, and he got away with it every time. The failure of the West to make a stand simply encouraged Putin to continue to behave badly, which he did in Ukraine. But Putin’s success over the years and his reputation as a brilliant geopolitical strategist also went to the man’s head. Putin began to believe his own press clippings and Ukraine proved a bridge too far.
Don’t hide important issues from the people you are leading
President Kennedy secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Turkey as part of the deal with Khrushchev, and the American public didn’t learn about the agreement for a quarter of a century. As a result, wrong lessons were drawn from the Cuban crisis and those wrong lessons might have led to serious harm to US interests.
As far as we know, President Biden has been upfront with the public about his policies toward Ukraine, but the same can’t be said for Vladimir Putin. Putin has kept the Russian public in the dark about almost everything, and one result of this has been public shock and anger when the truth finally comes out. Just recently, Putin had to resort to a broad draft to replenish his porous military in Ukraine, and this came as a deep shock not just to the broad Russian public, but also to the elites that had, up to then, supported Putin.
Assemble the best advisors available to you
During the Cuban Missile Crisis JFK created EXCOMM, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, to ensure that the right people would be in the room with him. The NSC already contained able people – Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, C. Douglas Dillon, Robert McNamara, Robert F. Kennedy, and McGeorge Bundy.
But Kennedy added others whose judgment he trusted, including George Ball, Llewellyn Thompson (Ambassador to the Soviet Union), and Dean Acheson, former Secretary of State. In addition, several “advisors” to EXCOMM attended many of the meetings: Paul Nitze, Adlai Stevenson, and Ted Sorensen, among others.
To some extent, the War in Ukraine has been Biden’s finest hour, despite his almost-weekly gaffes that have to be walked back by his staff. But who is advising him? No one really knows, as these faceless people are always described as “defense and intelligence advisors.” If the war becomes a nuclear crisis, this isn’t encouraging.
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Clausewitz famously said (more or less), that war is politics by other means. Merely because war has broken out, or merely because weapons of mass destruction are being threatened, is no reason for the political process to end. Diplomacy, negotiations, maintaining morale, assembling allies, economic sanctions and so on remain key elements of the process and will, even more than events on the battlefield, determine the outcome of the war.
The war in Ukraine will eventually be resolved, and probably along lines that will make no one happy. That is the lesson of Clausewitz and that was the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling notwithstanding.
Next up: Three Years to Forget
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