Ukraine tensions hearken back to Cuban Missile Crisis

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Civilians train to hold Kalashnikov rifles as they take part in a training session in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on Sunday. Photo by Vladyslav Musiienko/ UPI
Civilians train to hold Kalashnikov rifles as they take part in a training session in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on Sunday. Photo by Vladyslav Musiienko/ UPI | License Photo

For the moment, the Ukraine crisis seems less tense as, reportedly, Russia has moved some of its forces from the Ukraine border back to garrisons.

Some will suggest that perhaps this is a signal similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis of nearly 60 years ago. When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered his ships destined to Cuba to reverse course, Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously responded, "We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other side just blinked."


This was not a blink by Russian President Vladimir Putin. From the beginning of this crisis, and despite the prima facie evidence of Russian troops massing around three-quarters of Ukraine's borders, an invasion seemed the most foolish action Putin could take. Had he done so, his major aims of a new strategic framework for Europe based on pre-1997 conditions; ending NATO expansion; and denying Ukraine NATO entry would have been impossible to achieve. Worse for Putin, the NATO response would have been powerful, painful and predictable.


What then motivated Putin? The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is relevant. By the late 1950s, Khrushchev had ascended to leadership of the party and the Politburo. Dwight Eisenhower was in the last year of his administration. Ike had accepted the notion of "peaceful coexistence" with the Soviet Union. And Ike had both reduced U.S. defense spending and changed its trajectory to depend on nuclear and thermonuclear weapons to deter the Soviets.

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Since thermonuclear war was unthinkable -- a thermonuclear bomb is at least 1,000 times more powerful than the A-bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 -- Khrushchev saw the opportunity to follow suit and shift precious resources from the military to the civilian sector. The generals were less than happy. In January 1960, after the 21st Party Congress three months earlier in the fall, Khrushchev announced substantial defense cuts and slashed reserves by about 1 million troops.

But Khrushchev's plans would be turned upside down by the 1960 presidential election. John F. Kennedy won by the slimmest of margins. His campaign platform focused on rebuilding defense that Kennedy said had been eroded by the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, promising to redress the huge "bomber and missile gaps" that gave Moscow a huge lead.


There was a missile gap. But it was the United States that was far ahead. That made no difference. As Kennedy swept into office on Jan. 20, 1961, he "promised to pay any price and bear any burden" in the defense of liberty. Following up, he sent three separate requests to Congress for more supplemental defense spending and approved plans to triple the size of America's nuclear inventory. In April, he approved the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

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Khrushchev was in huge trouble. The generals, knowing the true state of Soviet defenses, could not allow the United States to gain an even larger advantage. And in no uncertain terms told Khrushchev.

In order to sustain his priority to improve Russian standards of living and the civilian economy, Khrushchev was faced with a seemingly impossible dilemma. Deciding he could use Berlin, a city well inside East Germany and thus Soviet Control and divided among the four victorious Allied powers (the United States, United Kingdom, France and the USSR) after World War II, as leverage, he met the new U.S. president in Vienna in June.

Kennedy's reaction to the summit: "He just beat the hell out of me." Khrushchev drew the obvious conclusion that would resolve his dilemma.


Instead of spending billions on matching America's nuclear might, Khrushchev would outflank it with shorter-range nuclear missiles that could target the U.S. east coast from Cuba. Cuba would agree, and the United States had short-range Jupiter missiles aimed at Russia in Turkey. A weak Kennedy would have no choice except to accept the fait accompli.

The decision was ratified at the Extraordinary 22nd Party Congress in October 1961. But it did not work that way. The United States discovered the bases before the missiles were operational. Khrushchev was forced to withdraw them. Two years later, he was out of office for "harebrained" scheming.

Putin's logic was similar. He wanted to be heard and his priorities taken seriously. Putin resented how Russia had been treated since the end of the USSR in 1991 and in his view disrespected, degraded and exploited. As Khrushchev resorted to the threat of missiles, Putin used the entire Russian military to threaten Ukraine.

The tragedy is that had Putin expressed himself and his demands in civil terms, and the West listened, we all would have been better off. And we also might have been in 1960 had Nixon won.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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