Can Lessons From Cuban Missile Crisis Help Stave Off U.S.-Russia Confrontation?

Map of Ranges of Soviet Missiles on Cuba

(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Yana Demeshko, Natasha Yefimova-Trilling – Oct. 19, 2022)

Yana Demeshko is a graduate student at UCLA and a student associate with Russia Matters. Natasha Yefimova-Trilling is the editor of Russia Matters.

The Cuban missile crisis, which nudged the world to the brink of nuclear disaster 60 years ago this month, has often served as a benchmark for just how bad U.S.-Russia relations can get. Today, policymakers, experts and the general public are once again fearful about the prospect of nuclear conflict between the two Cold War foes: Moscow is framing its war against neighboring Ukraine as a standoff with the collective West and rattling its nuclear sabers, while Kyiv relies heavily on U.S./NATO military support in trying to repel Russia’s invasion. Unsurprisingly, comparisons with the 1962 Cuban crisis are surfacing ever more often — to express fear, to analyze the drivers of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, to weigh the risks of inadvertent escalation and to draw lessons for ending the current standoff peacefully.This “lessons” category of comparisons is particularly alluring, since it carries a promise of peace-making. Before Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon suggested that “modest and reasonable concessions” by the West might dissuade Vladimir Putin from invading, as John F. Kennedy’s—including a secret promise to do away with some U.S. missiles targeting the USSR—had convinced Nikita Khrushchev to remove Soviet weapons from Cuba. Seven months into the war, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote that the Biden administration needs to follow Kennedy’s example by “drawing a firm line” with Moscow while also looking for paths to deescalate in “a face-saving way.” Even the deputy chief of Russia’s Security Council stressed last month that “the Caribbean crisis,” as it’s known in Russian, should be “actively studied” as a model for defusing today’s U.S.-Russia tensions.But determining how useful historical precedent can be for resolving present-day crises requires a complex comparative matrix, as the eminent historian Ernest May cautioned together with his co-author Richard Neustadt in their work on the subject. At a basic level, such a matrix includes identifying the similarities (or “likenesses,” as May and Neustadt termed them) and differences between the situations in question.

Inspired by this advice, we have tried to make a list of similarities and differences to compare the U.S.-Russia tensions ahead of the Cuban missile crisis and Moscow’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine. For obvious reasons it is limited in scope and detail. But we hope historians and political scientists will take this work further, fully understanding, of course, that evidence available about 1962 is incomparably better than what we can thus far piece together about the current crisis.

At the very least, the examples below suggest that Moscow’s threat perceptions played an important role in both confrontations. It’s also likely that practitioners would do well to keep in mind the “timeless lessons” of the Cuba standoff articulated recently by Graham Allison, a top American chronicler of that perilous episode. Among these is the necessity for private communication between leaders of nuclear-armed states and the realization, as Kennedy put it, that “nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”

Needless to say, the situation on the ground in Ukraine has changed drastically since February. One major difference between the two confrontations is the loss of life: The fatality count in Cuba is usually cited as one American pilot; in Ukraine, tens of thousands have been killed and maimed, millions displaced and untold numbers traumatized. Another is duration: The Cuban crisis lasted less than two weeks; the war in Ukraine has churned on for close to eight months, with no end in sight.

Here is our preliminary list of similarities and differences. Below it, we have noted a few additional areas of comparison worth exploring in greater depth.

Similarity 1 – GLOBAL COMPETITION: Washington and Moscow are geopolitical adversaries.

Differences: During the Cold War the two countries were not just rivals but the world’s only superpowers—two ideological, military and political poles that shaped geopolitical competition in much of the rest of the world. Today’s global balance of power is much more complicated and multipolar, with Russia weaker than the U.S. economically and in its conventional military capability (some details below). Consequently, in the past three decades, Washington has viewed Russia as a secondary player with limited strengths, not an equal on the world stage.

Similarity 2 – NUKES: Though Cold War-era nuclear arsenals have been sharply reduced, now, as 60 years ago, Washington and Moscow control over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Differences: During the Cuban crisis, Moscow transported dozens of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons to America’s doorstep; today, U.S. officials and military analysts have not seen any evidence to suggest Russia is preparing for a nuclear attack. Moreover, the U.S. and NATO have thus far explicitly rejected the idea of engaging directly in a hot war with Moscow. That said, today’s Russian military (unlike its Soviet counterpart) is considered weaker than the U.S. in conventional terms; Russian defense expenditure in 2020 amounted to less than one-tenth that of the U.S.1 This asymmetry is a major factor behind fears that Moscow will resort to nuclear weapons.2 (A more recent fear among analysts is that Russian setbacks on the battlefield will drive up the chances that Moscow will opt to use a nuclear weapon.) Despite officials’ continued affirmations that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” authors writing in both English and Russian worry that the visceral fear of nuclear Armageddon that inspired arms control efforts and other steps toward détente in the 1960s has faded with time in both countries.

Similarity 3 – A THIRD COUNTRY: Today, as 60 years ago, the potential nuclear standoff between Moscow and Washington centers on events in a weaker country that finds itself caught up in their battle for “spheres of influence”—then Cuba, now Ukraine.

Differences: In May 1961 Kennedy, concerned that Moscow was winning the ideological information war in the Third World, announced a new foreign policy to win support for the U.S. across “the whole southern half of the globe—Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.”3 Cuba’s close ties to Moscow were clearly at odds with this policy and a Soviet military presence there posed a direct challenge to Washington’s long-standing Monroe Doctrine, not to mention an immediate physical danger. Located a mere 90 miles from the U.S. coast but some 9,000 miles from Soviet borders, tiny Cuba could serve as an outpost for Moscow’s activities and influence in the Western hemisphere. Ukraine, much larger in both area and population,4 plays a very different role in Moscow’s eyes: Sharing a 1,200-mile land border with Russia, it has long been perceived by Russian strategists as a critical defensive buffer protecting their heartland. Ukraine’s impact on U.S. interests is a topic of debate. Whatever Washington’s intentions toward Kyiv may be, Russia perceives Ukraine’s drift toward the West and particularly its growing integration with NATO as a direct threat to its national security. (More on that below.)

Similarity 4 – NATO: Key nations in greater Europe are gathered under the U.S.-dominated security umbrella of NATO, which was founded to be a collective defense against Moscow.

Differences: In 1962 NATO had 15 members; accession to the bloc in 1955 by West Germany — which the Kremlin had wanted to remain neutral (a status it now seeks for Ukraine) — had rattled Moscow enough that it created its own security alliance, the Warsaw Pact. By 2014, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and fueled a separatist insurgency in the country’s east, NATO had nearly doubled its membership to 28 states, including a dozen European countries lying between the old NATO borders and Russia. Though Putin has not always been hostile to the West, Moscow has long perceived the bloc’s eastward expansion as a security threat. These fears were heightened in 2008 after NATO officially declared that Georgia and Ukraine—both of which border Russia—“will become members of NATO.”5 It is telling that, ahead of its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow put forward security demands to Washington about NATO, not to Kyiv about Ukraine.

NATO enlargement map

Similarity 5 – MOSCOW’S INTERESTS THREATENED: In both cases, Moscow likely perceived a threat to specific national interests—especially, preventing aggression against the state and ensuring allies’ survival.

Differences: Let’s consider the two interests separately.

  • Preventing aggression: One of Moscow’s security concerns amid the Cuban missile crisis was the nuclear threat posed to the Soviet Union by U.S. Jupiter missiles, which had been deployed to Italy and Turkey in 1958 and 1959; removing these was one of Khrushchev’s demands to Kennedy during the Cuba standoff6—a demand that Washington secretly agreed to during negotiations and made good on by 1964. The larger context for these fears included a U.S.-Soviet arms race and broader superpower competition worldwide. In today’s case, evidence suggests that, in the year or so leading up to its Feb. 24 invasion, the Kremlin had come to see Ukraine “as a permanently hostile country” that had been increasing both its defense cooperation with NATO and its military capabilities in ways that posed long-term security risks for Russia: American military analyst Rob Lee has specifically pointed to a $2.4 billion U.K.-Ukrainian deal for the joint production of missile boats and other naval weapons, as well as strategic defense agreements between Ukraine and the U.S. and tens of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid.
  • Ensuring allies’ survival: In Cuba, the most brazen threat to Soviet ally Fidel Castro came in April 1961, a year and a half before the missile crisis, with the U.S.-organized Bay of Pigs invasion aimed at overthrowing him; Kennedy denied U.S. involvement at the time, calling the attack “a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator.” The invasion failed to oust Castro; another of Khrushchev’s demands, also met, was for a U.S. pledge never to invade Cuba. In Ukraine, however, an upsurge of discontent in 2013-2014 did manage to oust Russia’s ally Viktor Yanukovych—the only post-independence Ukrainian president to oppose Kyiv’s aspirations for NATO membership and drop them from Ukraine’s foreign policy. Yanukovych’s overthrow—described by Putin as a U.S.-backed coup—precipitated Moscow’s takeover of Crimea, which has hosted Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since tsarist times, and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine. The Minsk peace accords, negotiated in 2014-2015 to end the conflict, would have effectively given Moscow a veto over Kyiv’s foreign policy via pro-Russian proxies in Ukraine’s east, but the agreements were never fully implemented. In the year before Moscow’s full-blown Feb. 24 invasion, Russia’s alliances within Ukraine were further weakened, as Lee points out: Turkey, a NATO member, had been supplying Ukraine with combat drones that could have proved a gamechanger in Kyiv’s fight with the Russia-backed separatists; Kyiv had walked away from commitments made in 2019 and 2020 that would have strengthened the separatists’ political legitimacy; and Ukraine arrested its most prominent pro-Putin politician, Viktor Medvedchuk, shutting down his three TV stations.

Similarity 6 – U.S. MILITARY MIGHT: Ahead of both crises, Washington had been increasing defense spending.

Differences: The U.S. increased its defense budget by 30% in Kennedy’s first year in office (1961) and approved the deployment of a strategic triad of weapons.7 Washington had been signaling—and the Soviets seemed to believe—that the U.S. had attained nuclear superiority. In 2017, after seven years of decline, annual U.S. defense spending—already an order of magnitude larger than Russia’s—started rising once more, though much more slowly than in 1961 or even in 2001-2010.

Similarity 7 – RUSSIAN TECH ANXIETY: In both cases, the top leader in Moscow publicly suggested that modern technologies will change the nature of global military competition.

Differences: In January 1960 Khrushchev told the Supreme Soviet that modern weapons—namely, nuclear missiles—were changing the character of war, making certain types of armed forces obsolete; though debate on what this meant in practice continued for years within the Soviet political-military leadership, concerns about the implications of nuclear weapons for the country’s policies and its resources were widely shared. Putin famously said in 2017 that whichever country becomes the leader in artificial intelligence “will be the ruler of the world” and, three years later, declared AI technologies to be a priority for Russia’s armed forces; now, too, debates on the practical implications of AI persist in Russia’s political-military leadership, but the defense sector has made a concerted effort to study and take advantage of the new technologies. That said, Russia has lagged behind both China and the U.S. in this domain and may be set back farther still by the sanctions and brain drain resulting from its war in Ukraine. (Russian concerns about other high-tech, dual-use technologies have shaped much of the thinking on military asymmetry noted in Similarity 2 above.)

Similarity 8 – FLIMSY BILATERAL TIES: Relations between Washington and Moscow are marked by mistrust, weak communication and anemic trade.

Differences: Some of the most sensitive communication between Kennedy and Khrushchev took place through backchannels and, even when direct, could be slow due to technical limitations; President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart have a direct hotline specifically for the purpose of avoiding war, as do their militaries. In fact, it was the Cuban standoff that prompted the creation of the presidential hotline and ushered in a slew of bilateral and multilateral agreements also meant to keep Washington and Moscow from stumbling into war. None of these deals had been in place in 1962. Many are still in effect, though experts worry that a slow disintegration of the global nuclear security architecture is underway. A comprehensive comparison of the two countries’ mistrust for each other, as well as their diplomatic ties, economic relations and intelligence activities, are beyond the scope of this exercise, but deserve greater scrutiny (see notes below).

Similarity 9 – RUSSIAN EYE ON CHINA: China looms large in Moscow’s foreign policy.

Differences: In 1962, Moscow was deeply troubled by deteriorating relations with China, which highlighted fragmentation within the Communist camp and threatened to further tax Soviet resources. (But China was still two years away from setting off its first atomic bomb.) Today, on the contrary, China is an economic powerhouse committed to strategic ties with Russia and has its very own nuclear arsenal.

Similarity 10 – A SHARED WAR EXPERIENCE: Washington and Moscow worked together as military allies to achieve victory in WWII.

Differences: Unlike 60 years ago, few people are alive today in either country with direct experience of the war’s destructiveness, privations and other horrors, or of the bilateral cooperation that helped end the fighting. That said, Biden is, in Allison’s words, “a seasoned Cold Warrior who has thought about the Cuban missile crisis and has thought about nuclear war. He has thought about what a full-scale war would look like, he’s even gone through scenarios on this.”

Additional Areas for Comparison and Investigation

Mutual mistrust, diplomatic ties and intelligence activities: These overlapping categories of comparison are so huge that homing in on what really matters is tough. Here are just a few points and questions to consider:

  • What has been the quality of intelligence on both sides? During the Cuban standoff, neither country had very good intel about the other, historian Timothy Naftali noted recently: U.S. decision-makers wondered whether Khrushchev was still in charge or his military had taken over; Khrushchev got insights from a barman who’d overheard some Americans’ conversations. In 2022, on the contrary, Naftali said, U.S. intelligence officials have imputed certain decisions to Putin with confidence, suggesting “a robust source” on Kremlin decision-making. Historian Philip Zelikow pointed out at the same event that the highest-quality analysis the White House was getting during the Cuba crisis was coming not from the intelligence community, which focused primarily on collecting raw data, but from “gifted analysts” at the State Department—not the typical source for such assessments today.
  • What are the key sources of U.S.-Russian mistrust and are there ways to mitigate the “dangerous tendencies in the way human beings process critical information in adversarial situations,” as one negotiations scholar put it? Nearly a year and a half before the Cuba crisis, fledgling hopes for détente had fizzled after Washington illicitly sent a U-2 spy plane to photograph Soviet military installations; the Soviets shot down the plane, whose true purpose Washington initially tried to deny and cover up, and the scandal derailed plans for a crucial disarmament summit in Paris. Nowadays, the U.S. list of grievances against Moscow seems longer: election interference, cyberattacks, treaty violations, poisonings. The mood in Washington has been described as “Russia fatigue”—so much so that Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin believes Russia and Putin are now demonized in the U.S. more than the Soviet Union and Khrushchev ever were. He cautions that, in this atmosphere, “any compromise taking into account the opponent’s concerns … would be seen as a betrayal of Western values and be political suicide for an American leader,” making negotiations and concessions that much more difficult.

Domestic pressures: These apply in both countries and in various policy areas. The question remains open: Which domestic pressures are most relevant for meaningful comparisons between the Cuba and Ukraine crises in U.S.-Russia relations? Here is just a sampling of some of the considerations in Russia alone: In the economic domain, Soviet leaders in the early 1960s faced numerous competing demands on the state’s resources—from supporting a wobbly agricultural sector to keeping up with the space race; modern Russia’s leaders, ahead of the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, were contending with an inefficient economic model and fallout from early rounds of sanctions. But these similarities may be skin-deep, not least of all because the state’s role in the economy has changed considerably. In terms of domestic politics, Prof. Stephen Cimbala and analyst Lawrence Korb (and others) have argued that unlike Khrushchev, who was “accountable to a collective communist party leadership (the Politburo) that eventually denounced him for ‘adventurism’ and other faults…, Putin appears to be surrounded by sycophants and increasingly isolated from anyone who would question his authority.” At the same time, journalist Andrey Pertsev points out that the Kremlin does occasionally need to placate certain Russian constituencies, including radical “ultra-patriots.” In short, there is no shortage of domestic pressures to be considered.

Communications technologies and their influence on public opinion: Cimbala and Korb likewise argue that “the global cornucopia of news sources and social media platforms” makes it nearly impossible “for any looming nuclear crisis to be concealed from public view for days or weeks.” This, in turn, would make it more difficult for U.S. leaders to “deliberate in secret” about possible responses to a Russian nuclear threat and would put greater pressure on them to churn out messaging for the public. At the same time, the Cuban-crisis era included plenty of leaks and revelations that forced politicians’ hands. So, while the difference in media landscapes between today and 1962 is obvious, its impact on possible lessons to be learned from the Cuban missile crisis is not.

Footnotes

  1. As Olga Oliker and Michael Kofman have helpfully explained, calculating military expenditure across countries can be anything but straightforward and all such estimates should be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. For an insightful explanation of the inefficiencies baked into the Russian defense sector, see this article by Pavel Luzin.
  2. During the Cold War, U.S. military planners similarly viewed tactical nuclear weapons as an ”equalizer” against the USSR.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica (academic edition) article on the Kennedy administration’s policies in the context of superpower relations in the 1960s.
  4. Ukraine is nearly 5.5 times bigger than Cuba; its population before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was about 45.5 million.
  5. One NATO official said this week that Moscow’s threats of using nuclear weapons seem aimed primarily at deterring the alliance and other countries from directly joining the war in Ukraine.
  6. From Encyclopedia Britannica (academic edition) article on Cuban missile crisis: “On [Oct.] 26th Khrushchev sent Kennedy a message offering to withdraw the missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge never to invade Cuba. The next day a harsher message arrived with a new demand that the United States withdraw its own missiles from Turkey.”
  7. Encyclopedia Britannica (academic edition) article on superpower relations in the 1960s.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors. Photo by Phil Stanziola available in the public domain. Map by Patrickneil shared under a Creative Commons license.

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