The Russia-West Stand-off Mimicking 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

  • Author: Mashuk Ahmed Khan
  • L.L.M.;  M.Phil.; M.A.; PG DIP. (LP); PG Dip.(HRM) MCIPD
  • A legal academic; and
  • Member of the University of Oxford Philosophical Society; and
  • The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development


History repeats itself. The lingering Russia-Ukraine stand-off has gone beyond their national acrimony. It is now Russia versus the West; Ukraine is just a pawn on the chess board. The world seems to be on the precipice of a third world war. The 1956 Soviet led Suez Crisis as a result of Egypt’s nationalisation of the Franco-British Suez Canal Company, the former USSR (‘Soviet Union’/‘Soviet’) and the West came closer to a potentially devastating war as the Soviet Union had threatened to use weapons of mass-destruction against Britain and France. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis resulted from the Soviet deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, capable of reaching the major US cities, brought the two super-powers to the very brink of a nuclear war. The recent crisis between Russia and the West is triggered by President Vladimir Putin’s alleged threat to Russian national security precipitated by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (‘NATO’) over-ambitious and aggressive expansionist tendency to include Ukraine in its club. For the Russian it is of course a hair-raising concern; whether it is Russia’s immediate, medium, or long-term sense of insecurity or de facto actual and perpetual threat to its security is relevant here.

The truth is, NATO’s unequivocal move closer to Russia cannot be taken lightly by the Russians, as the Soviet Union’s intended military expansion to America’s next door, Cuba, in 1962 had not been taken lightly by the Washington at all, for the very same reason that is chiefly pertinent to Russia’s national security today. The United States (‘US’) at that point (in 1962) was ready to go to war with the Soviet Union, and for six days the whole world was vigilant with deep tension and fright. The US was planning a surgical war on Cuba in desperation but that would have required the use of massive retaliation force in order to remove those missiles with unimaginable consequences. Fortunately, President John F Kennedy (‘Kennedy’) accepted President Nikita Khrushchev’s (‘Khrushchev’) offer to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange of an assurance by the US to the Soviet Union that it will not invade Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime (‘Castro Regime’).That was coupled with a further secret agreement, between the two Presidents that the US will dismantle its missile installations in Turkey (as demanded by Khrushchev), which would be met with similar Soviet response in Cuba – helped avert a nuclear war between the two Super-powers. Whether those agreements were made in good faith or to counter balance their strategic positions is a matter of construction; but in the absence of a truce the crisis could have culminated in to a third world war as the world leaders had feared then.

Although the 1962 crisis was brought to an end peacefully; nevertheless, it motivated the US to impose a trade blockade against Cuba as a means of punishment to Castro Regime, for its audacity to pose nuclear threats to the US national security together with its Soviet ally. The US also predicted promoting democracy in there using this ‘economic weapon’ to the detriment of the Cuban citizens. The economic sanctions imposed on Cuba under the executive Order 3447 signed by Kennedy is hitherto continued, and the Cubans have marked its 60th anniversary on the 2nd of February. The sanctions have cost the Cubans a loss of revenue to the tune of 150 billion US dollars to date. Notably, there was no win-win case for the US as Castro Regime survived to the US’s soaring discomfort; and no successive US president since 1963 has ever dared to abandon the Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement over Cuba – arguably not as a gesture of goodwill – but to avoid Soviet socialist and military expansion in the Latin America and the Caribbean.

The US and the NATO are threatening Russia now, with the same ‘economic weapon’ and beyond. President Joe Biden (‘Biden’) has announced on 8 December 2021 that Vladimir Putin will face “severe consequences, economic consequences, like none he has ever seen” if he escalates into open conflict; without questioning the truth that would Russia alone will suffer from it. However, if considered carefully, Biden’s statement has two limbs, the first “severe consequences” – is indicative of extra-ordinary retaliatory force that might be used, and the second is self explanatory – the economic harshness. Biden appears to have been heedless about his aggravating statement. With reference to Machiavelli, Biden ought to be reminded that “do not humiliate anyone you cannot destroy”.

The US is always busy with the slogan of democratising the whole world; the undertone of which is to actually emasculate Russian socialist and military expansion around the world in order to maintain US hegemony. The ‘Realpolitk’; Morals-based democracy or democracy-based foreign policy of the US, both essentially require the same kind of imperialistic approach (imposing American values instead of American interests). But such notions have failed again and again as had been witnessed over the last six decades for example; in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile, former East Pakistan, Iraq, Philippines, Libya, Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, and the latest example being the US’s humiliating defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation trying to establish American values in there.

It is hard to define what the American values mean, but the term echoes, super-imposition of the American wishes (do as you are told) or coercive extraction of subservience to it (did we not tell you?). Hence, it is congruent to Mill’s (Sir Stuart Mill 1806-1873) observation of human liberty that “freedom as freedom with restraint”. In the context of less fortunate nation states, it can be argued, that their socio-politico-economic sovereignty, is often, conditioned and regulated by the American values. For this reason, there is no real substance in such values for the under-developed or developing nations to rely upon nor is it welcomed. The either way US foreign policy (democracy-based or morals-based democracy), is unproductive to those under-privileged nations, as it often leaves them to perennial political instabilities, prolonged civil wars, and virtual economic ruins [emphasis added]. The US earned a bad reputation for putting itself in the league of dictators, to name a few infamous ones: Samoza, Batista, Yahiya, Pahlevi, Saddam, Marcos and Pinochet; because they were seen as important to US interests and values, no matter how oppressive they were to their own people or neighbouring countries.

The US and the NATO-backed overthrow of democratically elected Kremlin-friendly Kyiv government (Ukrainian) in 2014 were to gain NATO’s geopolitical advantage. It has clearly surfaced now by the US and NATO’s persistent resistance to Russian demand to exclude Ukraine from its expansion theory. The European Union’s hope to replace the Kyiv government following the 2014 bloody coup d’état, with less corrupt but still a democratic one, was overshadowed by US’s choice to put a rabidly anti-Kremlin (anti-Russian) and far-right Arseniy Yatsenyuk in power. That in effect generated the ‘new Cold War’ (the economic sanctions and NATO build up on Russia’s border). The Russian military build up around Ukraine is a pattern of tit for tat response and not unreasonable for Russia to contemplate removing and replacing the current pro-Western government in Kyiv with one, friendly to Kremlin; but this is not acceptable to the West. Since the current crisis involves Russia’s national security, Russia will not allow its status quo to be compromised for the NATO’s expansion to its geographic proximity, to this extent.

Hence, President Vladimir Putin (‘Putin’) cannot be said to have no legitimate grounds for demanding unconditional assurances from the Collective-West (Kremlin’s term of the US and NATO alliance) by treaty that it will not allow Ukraine to become a NATO member and that no further Eastward expansion of NATO will take place – closer to Russia’s border. The US and the USSR having gone to the brink of nuclear war in the past over the Cuban Missile Crisis, used that dastardly experience to try to make the world a bit safer place having invoked the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), namely the SALT I in 1972 (Nixon-Brezhnev era) and SALT II in 1979 (Carter-Brezhnev era) to limit the number of their nuclear armaments. The SALTs were superseded by the double-barrelled Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (the START) in 1991 (Bush-Gorbachev era) having added the words ‘limitation and reduction’ of strategic offensive arms in its text. All of those treaties mentioned above were intended to minimise the arms race and avert potential conflicts, such as the current one.

Now the US and its NATO allies have been surrounding Russia with military bases and trying to deploy nuclear missiles in Ukraine against Russia. The NATO’s expansion has largely been achieved following the Soviet disintegration coupled with opening the door of the European Union (EU) to the former East European Soviet allies (mostly Warsaw Pact members) to join the EU Capitalists’ Club. The Eisenhower doctrine developed post Suez crisis that served the US’s purpose of, limiting the Soviet influence and control over the Middle Eastern oil rich economies, can therefore be said to have been obliquely extended to the Warsaw Pact member states with their inclusion to the NATO, and the enlarged European Union. The US with its NATO allies have therefore capitalised pretty successfully on the Russian weaknesses, of which Putin is well aware. Now the NATO is pushing itself right on the Russian Border, in Ukraine; and Russia, as the US did sixty years ago, is howling “no way we can accept this”. Russia has the bitter experience of devastating wars waged against it, in the past. Historically, every time Russia was attacked by Napoleon or by Hitler’s Germany, it was in that same vicinity. Biden’s recent move to open a united front with Germany against Russia will certainly remind Putin of the historical past. The limited shuttle diplomacy (hypocrisy (?)) taken place with French President Macron’s visit to Kremlin and Kyiv on behalf of NATO is unlikely to achieve anything unless NATO retracts from its agenda – offensive to Russian sovereignty. So far Putin has only been threatened with economic sanctions and the rest, without addressing the fundamental issue that lies beneath this crisis.

NATO and the US’s repeated contriving statements to Russia that they will not deploy any ballistic missiles in Ukraine is not enough for the Russians since it makes no real sense as the NATO, pretty desperately, seeking its permanent footing in the Ukrainian soil for strategic purposes. NATO was created primarily in the Cold War era with its core mission to challenge and/or contain Soviet socialist expansion, and military threat to Western Europe and the US; and more so, to continue the US’s strategic overarching ambitions in wider Europe.  NATO is therefore inherently hostile to Russia; and its expansion cannot be geopolitically accommodating to Russian interests entailing its national security. Although the US promises not to deploy ballistic (Cruise) missiles in Ukraine; can it be relied upon by the Russians? Certainly not, let alone the words of mouth; even written undertakings are often violated by nation states since the international laws are weak and ineffective where mighty powers are involved in the game. Given that Russia’s current confrontation with the US and the NATO is not only, a derivative of the US’s breach of promise – made by the then US secretary of State James Baker on 9 February 1990 to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – that NATO will not expand to the Eastern Europe. The Russia also has created a threat to Ukraine’s national security, following its annexation of Crimea in breach of several agreements mentioned below. The problem is therefore a bifold one. Putin is not as innocent as he manifestly portrays himself to be.

What is significant to note here that unlike Cuban Missile Crisis where the US was in direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, this time there is no one- to- one involvement? Biden is trying to delegitimize the Russian concern by proxy; in other words warmongering by putting NATO at the forefront, condemning Putin’s move against the NATO’s new muscle-stretching pawn Ukraine in waiting. The US technically being at a safe distance ignoring the fact that the situation involving Ukraine is more volatile than the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the strategic positioning of the Super-powers then. China is openly siding with the Russians for obvious reasons. The US’s stance against China over Taiwan and Hong Kong is not welcomed by the Chinese government. North Korea has tested further long range nuclear missiles recently. Afghanistan and Iran is leaning towards Russia and China for mutual economic and political co-operation. The US and the NATO’s threat of economic sanctions to Russia can now be bypassed or mitigated by Kremlin since China is ready to lend its support to Russians. Russia could also terribly cut off its gas, and oil supplies (Nord Stream 2 pipeline for example) to Western Europe, to cause further energy crises that will inevitably disturb the logistics of war (if it comes to that) beside the rest. The US should also be concerned that NATO’s acts of provoking Russia will provide Kremlin with the excuse of expanding its economic and military alliance with the Latin American and Caribbean countries, already in sour relationships with the US, namely: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile and so on.

The United Nations (UN) sponsored US neo-imperialism underlying ‘conquer by breeding’ expanded around the world – with a lasting effect (not as successful) of nearly 75 years now, with its economic and military supremacy over the weaker nation states. It is a well founded case that the US has the habit of warmongering – a culture fostered by US foreign policy to weaken and/or suppress the uprising of communism and, new military and economic counterparts to its so called exclusive domain. The US entrenchment of Bi-Polar foreign policy and the doctrine of massive retaliation are the myths of the past and their effectiveness needs to be revisited by the US foreign policy makers. Can the US afford to use massive retaliation force against Russia is yet to be proven but is better not tested to the devastation of innocent human lives and global interests. The Japanese are still lamenting the atomic annihilation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to their nightmares. The US must take into account that the global situation is much different now with multiple nations achieving self-governing abilities, strong economic growth, and possessing nuclear weapons. The Eisenhower doctrine that was prompted by the Suez Crisis to provide economic and military aids to other countries (often sought by corrupt dictators or failing governments) had its time, and reached the stage of its demise. It is an awakening moment for the US to rethink about its status quo as the global economic and military power. It is best not to engage in a war simply to instil American values on others in the name of morals-based democracy or democracy-based foreign policy at a great cost to the whole world.

Further, Putin is aware of the US retrenchment policies due to its economic decline and the loss of global economic share. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, and further upcoming retraction from Iraq etc., is the dire signs of its retrenchment policies, to save itself from potential rise of socialism or civil unrest in the US – already beckoning in the American society due to socio-economic inequalities. One such example of this was the insurrection of the US Capitol Hill by Donald Trump’s (‘Trump’) supporters on 6 January 2021. Trump was able to manipulate the socialist cause of the average and underprivileged Americans including those in the hardcore Trump base, the stereotypical white-working class male nativists, who have been more than satisfied with Trump’s inward looking domestic economic policies.

The NATO members of the European nation states also need to think carefully with reflection to the two World Wars, fought mainly in Europe, while their trans-Atlantic cousin America was distant from suffering an imminent attack on its soil. That is even not the case now as the US is also within the reach of long range ballistic missiles from its enemies. The war is a dangerous game to spark and it is best to defuse further escalation of the present crisis by sensible and practical diplomatic negotiations between the Collective-West and Russia. The political leaders must acknowledge that any negotiating process is not about scoring debating points, but to find common ground(s) with give and take attitude; there has to be a serious intention to do a deal.

It is a common sense factor; Russia cannot and will not hold back itself to allow a perpetual threat to its sovereignty to take place. By the same token Russia must accept the fact that it is also responsible for creating this situation given its bullying behaviour to its neighbours and its annexation of Crimea (albeit bloodless) allegedly by referendum – what could ideally be termed as a forced referendum in disguise (not as democratic as the Kremlin portrays) – amounted to biggest land-grab in Europe since World War II. Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine violated, among other agreements: the United Nations’ (UN) Charter; the 1975 Helsinki Final Act; the 1994 Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances for Ukraine; and the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia. It has done serious damage to Europe’s post-Cold War security order and paved the way for NATO to extend its arms towards Kyiv in order to bring Ukraine under its brolly, and thereby gain strategic geopolitical advantage over Russia.

What is of grave concern here that, in the absence of an immediate resolution of this crisis, Russia might want to, force a change in the Ukrainian political orientation, and therefore it is conceivable that Kremlin will look at military options that it has at its disposal. How proportionate or disproportionate the exercise of its chosen option would be, to achieve its strategic objectives, will be dictated by the Western response to Russia’s actions. It is very important that the US and the NATO must “look before they leap” and not the other way round. A lost opportunity may be made up, but serious miscalculations cannot be remedied. A practical deal has to be struck. Putin will not yield to the US and NATO’s economic and military threats and withdraw its force from the Ukraine’s border.

The biggest irony is that the UN has shamelessly left this matter to the two Super-powers (US & Russia) to discuss and resolve, to the exclusion of the other nation states to engage in it. By doing so, the UN is showing its democratic deficit and thereby undermining its indispensability in this crucial moment and for the future. Notwithstanding this, the Heads of States and governments around the world should not remain silent spectators of this dangerous game. They must call upon the UN General Assembly for a meeting to discuss the issues with a view to find a fair and reasonable solution to this crisis – which if not contained soon, will have a domino-effect around the globe.  A third World War is not the option here to satisfy the political egos of the leaders of the Super-power nation states involved in this crisis.




11 February 2022

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