Dmitry Trenin: Russia and the United States still have time to learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis and prevent a nuclear war

The erosion of deterrence has left us sleepwalking in big trouble

This October marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which embroiled Moscow and Washington in a nuclear confrontation threatening the immediate annihilation of the world.

Fortunately, the leaders of the day – Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy – had the wisdom to step back and then engage with each other in the early stages of co-managing adversity at the time. nuclear age. Given the current conflict in Ukraine, which is gradually escalating towards a direct military collision between Russia and the United States, there is hope that the lessons of the past can also help end the current confrontation on a note. peaceful.

However, we must also bear in mind the major differences between the two crises.

On the surface, the root cause of the two clashes was an acute sense of insecurity created by the expansion of the political influence and military presence of the rival power to the doorsteps of its own country: Cuba then, the Ukraine now.

This similarity, however, is almost as far as it goes. The salient feature of the Ukrainian crisis is the great asymmetry not only between the relevant capabilities of Russia and the United States, but more importantly between the issues involved. For the Kremlin, the question is literally existential.

Basically, it is not only the future of Ukraine, but that of Russia itself that is on the table. For the White House, the question is certainly important, but much less critical. What is at stake is clearly the global leadership of the United States (which will not crumble in the Western world, no matter what happens in Ukraine), its credibility (which can be chipped but hardly destroyed) and the administration’s standing with the American people (for whom Ukraine is hardly a major concern).

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The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 erupted in the atmosphere of pervasive fear of World War III, which came to a head during the 13 days of October. The Ukraine crisis of 2022 is unfolding virtually in the absence of such fear. Russia’s actions over the past seven months have been taken in the West more as evidence of its weakness and indecisiveness than of its strength.

Moreover, the war in Ukraine is seen as a historic opportunity to defeat Russia, weakening it to such an extent that it can no longer pose a threat even to its smaller neighbors. A temptation emerges to finally resolve the “Russian question”, by permanently neutralizing the country by seizing its nuclear arsenal, and possibly breaking it into several pieces that would bicker and probably go to war. Among other things, it would deprive China of a major ally and resource base, and create favorable conditions for Washington to prevail in its conflict with Beijing, thus sealing its global dominance for many decades.

The Western public is bracing for the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in the Ukrainian crisis. Russian warnings to NATO countries, with reference to Moscow’s nuclear status, to stay away from any direct involvement in the war, which aim to deter rather than widen the conflict, are dismissed as blackmail. Indeed, a number of Western experts expect Russia to use its tactical nuclear weapons if its forces face a rout in Ukraine.

Rather than seeing this as a catastrophe to be absolutely avoided, they seem to see it as an opportunity to hit Russia very hard, make it an international outlaw and urge the Kremlin to surrender unconditionally. On a practical level, the US nuclear posture and its modernization programs focus on lowering the atomic threshold and deploying low-powered weapons for use on the battlefield.

This does not mean that US President Joe Biden’s administration wants nuclear war with Russia. The problem is that its highly proactive policy towards Ukraine is based on a faulty premise that Russia can indeed accept being “strategically defeated” and, if nuclear weapons were used, their use would be limited to Ukraine or, at worst, Europe. The Americans have a long tradition of attributing their own strategic logic to their Russian adversaries, but this can be fatally misleading. Ukraine, parts of Russia and Europe hit by nuclear strikes – while the United States emerges unscathed from the conflict – might be seen as a tolerable outcome in Washington, but not in Moscow.

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So many of Russia’s so-called red lines that have been violated inconsequentially since the start of the war in Ukraine have given the impression that Moscow was bluffing, so when President Vladimir Putin recently issued another warning in Washington, saying that “it’s not a bluff”some people have concluded that it was precisely that. Yet, as recent experience shows, Putin’s words deserve to be taken more seriously. In a 2018 interview, he said: “Why do we need a world in which there is no Russia?”

The problem is that the strategic defeat of Moscow, which the United States is aiming for in Ukraine, would probably ultimately result in “a world without Russia.“That probably suggests that if – God forbid! – the Kremlin will have to deal with what Russian military doctrine calls “a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation”,its nuclear weapons will not be pointing at a place on the European continent, but more likely on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s a scary thought, but it can be wholesome. Any the use of nuclear weapons must be prevented, not only the use of strategic weapons. It is cruel but true that peace between adversaries is not based on solemn promises and wishful thinking, but, ultimately, on mutual fear. We have come to call this deterrence and “mutually assured destruction”. This fear shouldn’t cripple our will, but it should ensure that neither side loses their minds. On the contrary, the erosion of deterrence and its rejection as a bluff would leave us sleepwalking into big trouble.

Unfortunately, that is precisely where we are heading now. It is telling that the constant bombardment, for many weeks, of Europe’s largest nuclear power station is tolerated by Western public opinion – including, incredibly, European public opinion – because it is the Ukrainian forces who seek to dislodge the Russians who occupied the plant.

If there are lessons to be learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, they are essentially two. The first is that nuclear deterrence tests are fraught with fatal consequences for all of humanity. The second is that the resolution of a crisis between major nuclear powers can only be based on agreement, and not on the victory of one or the other.

There is still time and room for it, even if the former is running out and the latter is shrinking. At present, it is still too early to even discuss a potential settlement in Ukraine, but those Russians and Americans who, like me, have spent the past three decades in a futile effort to help create a partnership between their two countries must come together now to reflect on how to avoid a fatal confrontation. In 1962, after all, it was informal human contact that saved the world.


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