The most dangerous moment since 1962

The Ukraine war is a textbook example where the parties involved are treating each other with matching hostility — a dangerous slope — sharply escalating the conflict

Updated - November 03, 2022 07:49 pm IST

Published - November 03, 2022 12:16 am IST

‘Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden are in their own silos, blaming each other and blindly pursuing their goals through force, while Ukraine is on fire’

‘Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden are in their own silos, blaming each other and blindly pursuing their goals through force, while Ukraine is on fire’ | Photo Credit: AP

In October 1962, when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had moved nuclear missiles to Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy called it “a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country...” He ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba, thus blocking access for Soviet ships. He had appointed an executive committee of his National Security Council to advise him on possible reactions. While most members of the ExComm favoured airstrikes on Cuba targeting the Soviet missiles, Kennedy stuck to quarantine, which was also one of the recommendations of the committee. At the same time, he opened a back channel to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev through his brother Robert Kennedy. “Even if he (President Kennedy) doesn’t want or desire a war, something irreversible could occur against his will. If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power,” Robert Kennedy told the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. Khrushchev reciprocated to Kennedy’s message, which he saw as a “call for help”, and both leaders pulled their countries back from the brink of a nuclear war.

The world has seen several military conflicts since the Cuban missile crisis. There have been wars across continents. Both the former Soviet Union and the U.S. had launched interventions, invasions and proxy conflicts in weaker countries. But a 1962-like scenario, where two nuclear superpowers came eyeball to eyeball never happened — until the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. Eight months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, this is what it looks like it is: a complex polycentric conflict where, inside Ukrainian territory, Russia’s nuclear-armed forces are battling high-performing Ukrainian troops that are directly assisted, in terms of money, weapons and fighters, by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the trans-Atlantic nuclear alliance.

Origins of crises

Besides fears of the existing conflict escalating into a direct Russia-NATO war, there are similarities and dissimilarities between the Cuban missile crisis and the Ukraine war. The similarities begin with the origins of both crises. Khrushchev secretly moved the nuclear missiles to Cuba after the failed Central Intelligence Agency-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of the island in 1961, where the guerillas, under the command of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, had overthrown a pro-American military dictatorship in 1959. Later, the Soviets claimed that the missiles were for defensive purposes, but the U.S. found the presence of nuclear missiles in an island 145 km off the coast of Florida as a security threat. Put simply, the U.S. would not accept any challenge to its hegemony in the western hemisphere, its immediate periphery.

The origins of the Ukraine crisis can be traced to NATO’s eastward expansion. When NATO took in more countries and pushed its borders towards Russia’s periphery, both the group’s leadership and the new members emphasised that they were a defensive alliance and did not pose any threat to Moscow. They also argued that the former Soviet allies and the (newly born) republics were independent entities that could take sovereign decisions on whether they should join any military alliance or not. Yet, like Kennedy and his national security team did not accept the Soviet argument that the Cuban missiles were for defensive purposes, or that Cuba was an independent country which could take sovereign decisions on whether it should host Soviet missiles or not, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his team did not buy NATO’s similar arguments. Mr. Putin saw NATO’s expansion into and growing influence on the old Russian rim land as a national security threat to Russia, just like Kennedy saw the presence of Soviet missiles in the Caribbean as a national security threat to the U.S.

But the similarities end there. The Cuban missile crisis was a crisis that was resolved before it actually slid into war, whereas in the case of Ukraine, a full-scale war began on February 24 with the Russian invasion, which makes the crisis even more complex and demands more urgent calls for enhanced diplomatic efforts. Mr. Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden missed the bus to avert an actual conflict, but they can still avert a catastrophic direct Russia-NATO war. But are they doing anything to meet that?

The spiral model

The current phase of the Ukraine war is a textbook example of what international relations theorists call a spiral model, where parties treat each other with matching hostility, sharply escalating an existing conflict. Even if there is no desire for a nuclear war on both sides, escalatory spirals could be dangerous, which, if left unchecked, could take their own course. Still, why is there no conscious diplomatic effort to create conditions for talks?

One way to look at conflicts is to take a moral, normative view of them. The mainstream narrative in the U.S. about Mr. Putin matches this view — he is the aggressor, who has violated international laws and norms by invading Ukraine and annexing its territories, and, therefore, Washington would not hold talks with the Kremlin. This normative absolutism is not consistent with the past and present of American foreign policy. The U.S. itself has violated UN norms several times in its interventions abroad and it had no moral qualms in recognising its ally Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights or recognising the disputed Jerusalem, half of which has been illegally annexed by Israel, as its capital.

A more realistic explanation is that Washington sees an opportunity in the Ukraine war to weaken Russia by continuing to arm Ukraine. As per this narrative, Russian failure in Ukraine could have political consequences, including challenges to Mr. Putin’s hold on power. So, escalation becomes a policy of choice. The Russians, on the other side, see the U.S. as the main force behind Ukraine, before and after the war began. As a failure in Ukraine will have both security and political consequences, Mr. Putin cannot afford to make compromises. Escalation becomes the way ahead for him as well. This is a dangerous slope.

Strategic empathy

Unless the leaders break the spiral, the conflict will keep deteriorating, as was evident in Russia’s recent attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure and the Ukrainian drone attack in Sevastopol, Crimea. To break the spiral, the parties will have to first look beyond their personalist view of the conflict and try to understand the structural conditions which their rivals operate from. This would allow the leaders to empathise with their rivals, irrespective of their moral positions (what Realists call strategic empathy), and take difficult decisions to make peace. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky says he would not talk with Russia as long as Mr. Putin is the President. Mr. Biden says “Putin cannot remain in power”. But is there any certainty that the security situation in Europe would be better if the Putin regime collapses? Did the collapse of the communist Soviet Union bring lasting peace to Europe? For Mr. Putin, Washington is the sum of all evil. But how can he expect President Biden to sit idle when Russia seeks to redesign the European security architecture through force? Which American President will do so?

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Kennedy and Khrushchev had shown strategic empathy to understand the predicament both leaders were in, and they could make difficult choices. But Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden are in their own silos, blaming each other and blindly pursuing their goals through force, while Ukraine is on fire. The sooner they come out of it, the better for the world.

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