By John Erath
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, generally considered to be the closest the world came to all out nuclear war. Perhaps inevitably, much of the commentary has highlighted supposed parallels to the current situation, specifically Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons in support of its aggression against Ukraine. President Biden reinforced the connection when he said the world was closer to “Armageddon” than any time in the past 60 years.
Such warnings are appropriate. Should a nuclear state start talking about using its capabilities, the consequences could be catastrophic. We should, however, be cautious about trying too hard to find parallels. The situation in 2022 is, of course, fundamentally different from 1962, the height of the Cold War. Instead of two superpowers facing off, we have one nuclear power looking to leverage its nuclear capabilities to reverse its fortunes in an ill-advised military adventure. The lesson that can and should be taken from 1962 is the basic one: crises are better addressed through diplomacy and dialogue than by military force. That is all. Trying to interpret or manage the current situation as though it were 1962 risks tragic error.
Why then the focus on replaying history? Apart from the symbolic importance of the 60th anniversary, there is a strong emphasis on congruence between the missiles of October 1962 and the present coming from Moscow. The imperative in the Kremlin these days is to find a way to halt Russia’s losses in Ukraine and break the flow of assistance to Ukraine. To accomplish this, Putin has shown no hesitancy to threaten nuclear war, and the emphasis on events of 60 years ago is another element of a larger strategy to lock in Russia’s gains. The nuclear threats, annexations, call-ups of hapless draftees and now ominous reference to a dangerous time all work together to raise the perceived costs of continuing a war that is going badly for Moscow. Rather than making space for dialogue, Putin wants to use the example of the Cuban Missile Crisis to underline the idea that we are at the brink, and the way to walk back is to make concessions to Russia. Instead of instilling caution in Russian leaders, the 1962 narrative is being used to support aggression.
The key will be neither to reward nor emulate such aggression. As the world saw after 2014, a “ceasefire” that locked in Russian gains did not lead to a peace process. Validating the use of nuclear blackmail, even if cloaked in historical reference, can only lead to more close calls. This does not mean that we should press the controversy in a confrontational manner. The United States and Soviet Union managed the crisis in 1962 by means of dialogue, based on a shared understanding that the goal for both sides was to avoid nuclear war. That should provide a clue as to the way forward. Manipulating the fears of repeating the Cold War’s darkest moment is a cynical ploy that could bring the world closer to disaster.