Robert Kennedy called his memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962—the greatest confrontation of the Cold War—Thirteen Days. But the present facedown over Ukraine has been going on for a couple of months, and seems to be getting worse.
Moreover, the conflict is, in a certain sense, more symbolic than real. The central demand made by Russian president Vladimir Putin is that the US should guarantee that Ukraine doesn’t join Nato.
But it’s extremely unlikely that Ukraine will join Nato. All 30 member states have to agree to any new member and—almost certainly—at least one would veto Ukraine joining. Why risk war with Russia? Even Ukraine’s pro-Western president Volodymyr Zelensky said the other day that Nato membership might be “like a dream”.
Putin is demanding that something doesn’t happen even when it probably won’t happen. And US president Joe Biden is refusing to concede this even if it probably won’t happen.
So what’s going on? The answer is that neither side can afford to be seen to lose. Putin has real security concerns about Nato’s encroachments in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. But more fundamentally he wants Russian imperialism to be recognised by the US as a global player, not the “regional power” that Barack Obama once arrogantly called it.
Meanwhile, Biden’s domestic programme is blocked by the Republicans in Congress. His standing in the opinion polls has fallen sharply. Moreover, what tripped him up was a geopolitical setback—Afghanistan’s fall last August. As the Financial Times “Swamp Notes” column pointed out, “the collapse in Biden’s job-approval rating can be pegged almost to the date that the Taliban overran Kabul.
“The last time the president’s approval rating was above 50 percent was the week before the US-backed Afghan government disappeared. He has been below 50 percent ever since—and is struggling to stay above the 40 percent threshold.”
So Biden hopes that, if he humiliates Putin over Ukraine, his domestic political fortunes may turn up again. This makes the Ukraine crisis peculiarly hard to resolve, unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis with which it is sometimes compared. That was provoked by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to base nuclear missiles in Cuba. He wanted to protect Fidel Castro’s revolutionary regime from the efforts of US president John F Kennedy’s administration to overthrow it.
When Kennedy discovered the missiles being installed, he imposed a naval blockade on Cuba. The world seemed to be on the brink of thermonuclear war. Then Khrushchev ordered Soviet ships carrying more missiles to turn back. US secretary of state Dean Rusk is supposed to have commented, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
In fact, both sides had already blinked. A fascinating recent study by Theodore Voorhees Jr called The Silent Guns of Two Octobers shows that for both Kennedy and Khrushchev, nuclear war was unthinkable.
They had been communicating secretly for months through the intermediary of spooks and journalists. Kennedy got Khrushchev to agree very quickly to withdraw the missiles by making two big concessions. He promised not to invade Cuba and to withdraw US nuclear missiles based in Turkey and Italy that targeted the Soviet Union. They agreed to keep the second concession secret to avoid Kennedy being attacked by the Republicans in the mid-term Congressional elections that November.
Kennedy emerged as the victor in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But Khrushchev didn’t mind being portrayed as the guy who blinked because Kennedy offered him more than he would have settled for. This time, however, it’s important for both Biden and Putin not to be seen to have blinked. This is a struggle between two imperialist powers, both of which have suffered defeat—Russia in the Cold War, the US in the Greater Middle East. It’s a dangerous combination.
Not just a national struggle