Sixty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost triggered a world nuclear war, history repeats itself, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a more ambitious protagonist, the current President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Putin, who launched a three-pronged offensive in Ukraine on February 24 this year, has already declared the annexation of four eastern regions of the country (in addition to the Crimean peninsula, which he annexed in 2014) and deported tens of thousands to its territory. of Ukrainians, amid threats of a nuclear attack on the West, because of the military and humanitarian aid it is providing to Ukrainian forces and the adhesion of Finland and Sweden to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, defense bloc western).
In 1962, after 15 years of the Cold War, there was a 13-day test of strength, until October 28, between the summits of power of a bipolar international order led by the young US President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, after photos taken on October 14 by US U2 spy planes revealed the presence in Moscow ally Cuba of launch pads for Soviet missiles with range to reach the northeast of the United States.
Kennedy, considering a “nuclear attack against the Western Hemisphere” possible, decided to isolate the island, with a maritime blockade that he designated as “quarantine”, as it was a less threatening term, and placed the strategic military forces on high alert, the previous level. the launch of a nuclear war. Hundreds of bombers loaded with atomic bombs patrolled the skies, and intercontinental missiles were armed.
The Soviet ships retreated, and behind the scenes negotiations began on an agreement between the two superpowers, which provided for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba if the United States withdrew its missiles from Turkey. Then, one of these U2 planes (manned by a pilot) was shot down over Cuba, causing Kennedy to directly send his brother Robert, US Secretary of Justice, to negotiate with the Soviet ambassador.
Khrushchev eventually agreed to withdraw the missiles from Cuba, and Washington pledged not to invade that Caribbean country allied with Moscow and to secretly withdraw its intercontinental missiles from Turkey.
After this crisis, in 1963, a “red phone” was installed — a direct line of communication between the White House and the Kremlin during the Cold War (because it later became known that the order to shoot down the U2 had come from Havana, not from Moscow).
The doctrine in force in the 1950s and 1960s in NATO was known by the acronym MAD (which literally means ‘crazy’ in English, but also Mutual Assured Destruction, that is, Mutual Assured Destruction) — which left no doubt as to what strategists thought would happen to the planet if one of the warring parties in the Cold War (Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, and NATO, led by the United States) launched a nuclear attack: there would be no survivors.
Now, the protagonists are different, but it is just a different version of the original formula – Russia versus the West – and the world is following the unfolding of events not only live but also in color, between the media and social networks, so obtaining a secret agreement that remained secret would be highly unlikely.
The great question is whether the capacity of the political leaders who managed to avoid a nuclear conflict in October 1962 is equivalent to the current world leaders and will have the same level of effectiveness – or even if that is their will. Experts fear not.
US President Joe Biden warned in early October that the world was facing the risk of nuclear war for the first time since 1962 and that Putin “wasn’t kidding” when he uttered such a threat.
George Perkovich, a specialist at the American Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and who has studied this matter for 40 years, considers this to be “the most delicate situation” he has seen and the one that, “more than any other since 1962, can trigger the use of of nuclear weapons (…) because there is a nuclear power, Russia, whose leader defined the issue as existential”.
Unlike in 1962, the world is currently confronted with several atomic powers: North Korea is preparing for yet another nuclear test, India and Pakistan are still in latent conflict and Iran has relaunched its nuclear program.
But Ukraine poses a unique risk, because the conflict indirectly pits the two major nuclear powers. If Russia uses an atomic weapon, it must be a tactical nuclear weapon, weaker than so-called “strategic”, but Biden warned that it will be difficult to use any nuclear weapon “without ending up causing the apocalypse”.
Putin, who questions the historic legitimacy of a sovereign and independent Ukraine, has formally annexed four regions of the country in recent days and said an attack on “annexed” Russian territory or direct Western intervention in the conflict could lead Russia to resort to arms. nuclear.
The war in Ukraine clearly differs from the Cuban missile crisis in that Ukraine is far more important to US allies than Cuba was in 1962: “Putin seems to want to change Europe’s borders and this is terrifying to Europeans” , argues Marc Selverstone, a Cold War historian at the University of Virginia.
In his opinion, in 1962, Khrushchev’s goals, while important, were “more modest than those of Vladimir Putin now: Moscow wanted to compete with the United States in terms of armaments and to have a bargaining chip with the West on the Berlin question.” ” and, for Kennedy, a few days before the mid-term elections in the United States and “embarrassed by the fiasco of the landing in the Bay of Pigs”, the previous year, (…) the most important thing was to reduce the risk of nuclear confrontation”, he stresses. the historian, adding: “I don’t know if that’s Vladimir Putin’s priority right now. In fact, he seems to want to up the ante.”
Also in Ukraine, the President, Volodymyr Zelensky, is committed to a successful counter-offensive by his military forces and intends to recover all the territory occupied by Moscow.
The United States has already provided billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, but Biden has not sent missiles to Kiev with range to reach Russian territory, explaining that he wants to avoid a “Third World War”.
Source: With Agencies