WAR IN EUROPE
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a far cry from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis
The reasons for Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine must be analysed carefully and debunked. Similarly, the argument that this crisis is simply a struggle between Russia and the US for influence, like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, must also be addressed and answered.
By now it should be clear to virtually everyone, save for those already hardwired to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defence of his invasion of Ukraine, that his justifications are imaginary, even self-delusional, and seriously dangerous to international stability. His explanations that, collectively, are a casus belli, provoking Russian actions and thus justifying the ongoing invasion, need to be debunked.
Putin has, variously, cited the supposedly dire threat of resurgent neo-nazism in Ukraine; that it is a government of illegitimate poseurs, drug dealers and thugs; that the current leaders are the heirs to a government formed out of a coup d’état foisted on Ukrainians by secret Western forces; or, alternatively, it is all a plot by the West to pull Ukraine into the arms of Nato and thereby encircle Russia. The latter is, in fact, part of a plan to continue expanding Nato until Russia’s very existence as a sovereign nation is at risk, claims Putin.
More lately, Putin has also argued that Ukraine does not even exist as a legitimate nation and that its current circumstances are the fault of the Bolsheviks in thwarting the reality of Russia as the “third Rome”. Thus, it is his sacred task to rebuild a Russia that reincorporates those republics that foolishly or maliciously elected to become independent successor states out of the wreckage of the old Soviet Union.
Moreover, Putin has insisted the real goal of the West is to entice or tempt Ukraine into joining Nato, thereby allowing the forward-basing of strategic missile forces on Ukrainian soil, directly threatening Russia. Furthermore, Ukrainians themselves are harbouring a not-very-secret desire to obtain their own strategic nuclear weapons forces, threatening international peace and stability in Europe, in addition to exercising a direct threat to Russian security and safety. That is a daunting list of charges and existential dangers, or, at least, they would be — if they were real.
Accordingly, it is important to hold such arguments up to the light. As far as neo-nazism is concerned, the German embassy in South Africa took a swat at that on behalf of everyone else, noting snarkily that Germans have had some sad experience with nazism and they see no version of such a thing in today’s Ukraine. (We can put aside that widely circulated photograph of a small bunch of right-wing militants holding a swastika flag, noting this is the exception that effectively proves the rule, given that both the Ukrainian president and prime minister are Jewish and that the country had, until the invasion, a thriving resident Jewish community of some 200,000 people. In any case, no Eastern European nation, from Poland to Russia, has been entirely free of the remnants of historical antisemitism.)
Another charge has been that Ukraine is engaging in genocide of Russian ethnic residents, but without any credible evidence. As far as the accusation of the government being comprised of drug dealers and thugs, Putin’s government has, in fact, never offered any evidence to back up such a claim either — probably because there is none.
As far as the charge that Ukraine has an illegitimate government, history tells a somewhat different story. The earlier government of Viktor Yanukovych was effectively driven from office by widespread popular unrest, both for its blatant corruption and looting by its leaders, as well as for the then president’s visible obsequiousness towards Russia. (Yanukovych now lives in exile in Russia.) Thereafter, there have been two generally honest elections for the job of president, most recently when incumbent president Volodymyr Zelensky decisively defeated his predecessor in 2019.
Ukraine’s legitimacy as an independent nation has obviously been confirmed in numerous international agreements signed by Russia. Moreover, the nature of Ukraine as a separate yet closely related ethnicity stretches back through religious, historical, cultural and linguistic evidence. What Ukraine did not have has been a long history as an independent nation, largely because it has usually been subjected to centuries of rule by others — from Mongols to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and then being split between the Habsburg Empire and Tsarist Russia at the end of the 18th century.
The breakup of the old Soviet Union has, however, given growing room for a distinct Ukrainian nationality to flourish. Most important now, the current hostilities have served increasingly to cement just such feelings among its citizens, almost regardless of whether or not their home language is Ukrainian, Russian or both.
On the eastern border of the country, the two districts in Donbas have waged a 10-year insurrection against Ukraine, aided and abetted by Russia, including military materiel and personnel, shorn of the uniform insignia. Putin has used this particular struggle as a rationale for a much broader campaign against the country and the inhabitants’ supposed repression.
Meanwhile, in the case of Crimea, it had been formally transferred to Ukraine after World War 2, by which point the area had been forcibly denuded of most of its long-time Tartar residents. Then, in 2014, Russian army units occupied the peninsula and carried out a much-disputed referendum about whether the region should remain part of Ukraine. The often-mentioned Minsk agreements did not spell out formal, clear guidelines about such self-government arrangements.
As far as the claim that there is a not-very-secret plan to expand Nato to include Ukraine, it is true that the larger wisdom of Nato’s post-Cold War expansion in two waves can be disputed. However, there is no disputing the reason why Nato’s new members — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia — were eager to apply and be accepted.
In the case of many of those nations, they had had experience as either unwilling members of the Soviet Union itself, as was the case with the three Baltic republics, or, until the breakup of the Soviet Union, they were subject to the overwhelming influence of that nation. (Albania, and the three former Yugoslav republics, most recently had sought the benefits of protection within the group, although they had not actually been part of the Warsaw Pact.) In fact, membership was not automatic. Applicants have had to undergo a complex process of tendering an interest in joining.
Twenty years ago, a close friend was working for a Washington lobbying firm that had been retained by Romania in 2003-4 to help convince very doubtful members in key committees of the US Congress and leaders in the executive branch that Romania was also deserving of Nato membership. Nato membership requires full agreement by all members for the accession of any new member, and a variety of criteria about governance and capabilities must be met.
Similarly, a much sought-after membership in the European Union is also a complex process of qualification and it, too, requires the unanimity of current members to admit another nation to the group. For Nato, the last round of new members comprised several successor nations from the former Yugoslavia, rather than nations that had been Warsaw Pact members or former parts of the old Soviet Union. Those had joined back in the years between 1999 and 2004 — roughly two decades ago.
While it is clear the current leadership of Ukraine has been eager to join both multinational bodies, it is just as clear there has been no irresistible push from the US to make it happen, despite claims by Putin. (This is besides the occasional, vague comments that such a decision might happen in the indefinite future, but not now.) The Western view is that Ukraine, as a sovereign nation, is free to seek to be associated with other like-minded nations if it chooses. Any other position basically destroys the very idea of sovereignty as it applies to a state like Ukraine.
Moreover, regarding charges that Ukraine is plotting to obtain nuclear weapons, this is also being made sans evidence. In fact, from the historical record, several years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, with Russia and endorsed by the US and Britain, in the Budapest Memorandum, agreed to relinquish the nuclear warheads and missiles on its territory and to have them decommissioned. In return, Russia guaranteed the territorial sovereignty of the two nations and the sanctity of the borders concerned. That agreement seems, in retrospect, to have been conditioned on how Putin viewed such things.
Finally, there is Putin’s charge that the US has been planning to install missiles in Ukraine as a global-strategic-stability-destroying plan. But in truth, the missiles in question now stationed in Poland and Romania are weapons with conventional warheads and are anti-missile missiles with limited range. They cannot be converted into strategic ICBMs or IRBMs — as those are very different technologies. US officials argue the anti-missile missiles are in place largely to preclude the possibilities of a missile attack from Iran should it choose to target its now-developed strategic missiles northward — especially if they come to be fitted with nuclear warheads eventually.
But there is another, more subtle argument now being made about the nature of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, drawing upon Putin’s global vision, even without explicitly referencing it. Such a view is repeated by various scholars or policymakers, such as Oscar van Heerden in his recent opinion piece in this publication.
This argument attempts to make the case that the current issue is simply a new version of a long-time conflict over spheres of influence, in the way the European powers laid claim to parts of Africa and Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries without necessarily declaring them as formal colonial territories, or even the US’s Monroe Doctrine way back in the 1820s, when the US was still a very modest power with a tiny standing army and a puny navy, back when it seemed likely that European nations might yet reimpose colonial rule over the recently independent states of Latin America.
This argument, as advanced now, largely ignores the very real Russian motive, instead, seeming to impose an artificial equivalence of motives between the US and Russia. The crucial fact is that Ukraine has been progressively sliding towards an embrace of the West on its own steam, in pursuit of the promise of greater economic growth and investment for years — and eager to be associated more closely with the EU and even, possibly, Nato.
As an element of this “dispute over spheres of influence” theory, its proponents want to argue that today’s conflict mirrors the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that was similarly all about spheres of influence. However, comparative analogies can be both illuminating and misleading.
Take a look at the Cuba crisis in finer-grain detail. Following the collapse of the Cuban exiles’ landing at the Bay of Pigs in early 1961 (armed and encouraged by the US to replace the recently victorious Fidel Castro and his forces), an increasingly nervous Castro, having now publicly embraced the Soviet Union as an ally, prevailed upon the Soviet leadership to do something to deter the US or the exile formations from any repeat effort.
By 1962, the US government (the Kennedy administration blamed a loosely reined-in CIA for the Bay of Pigs debacle, with its plot hatched during the dying days of the Eisenhower administration) had largely given up the idea that Cuba’s new government could be overthrown and believed that a growing roster of restrictions on trade and economic ties would be sufficient to restrict Cuban impact elsewhere. (As a footnote, due to the continuing electoral pressure of the Cuban-American community on a small number of Florida congressmen, an embargo on trade between Cuba and the US largely continues, although there is pressure to lift this in the US and many nations now simply ignore it.)
Simultaneously, the Soviet Union saw this plea from Castro as an opportunity to redress the strategic nuclear balance sharply in their favour. The Soviet Union thus began constructing launching-pad installations and shipping missiles (and nuclear warheads) secretly to Cuba. Such missiles would shorten the launch to impact time to hit most major US cities down to about 12 minutes, turning those missiles into a game changer of a first-strike capability.
Such weapons (and the consequent threat to use them) could outweigh any other strategic weapons then in the US arsenal. That would provide a lever to gain concessions elsewhere, such as with newly independent states in Asia and Africa, but most especially in central Europe and Berlin, where the Soviets and East Germans had just constructed their wall dividing the city and keeping East Germans from fleeing westward.
Berlin was also where the two great powers’ militaries literally faced each other across a downtown Berlin street checkpoint, a few metres apart. Premier Nikita Khrushchev, having seen an inexperienced, youthful president in John Kennedy from their summit in Vienna, apparently believed Kennedy could be pushed hard on strategic matters and that such missiles might even tip the balance.
The preparations for the placement of the missiles were, however, uncovered by surveillance flights over Cuba by early October 1962. In response, the Americans declared a naval quarantine around the island to check all Soviet ships heading to Cuba to preclude further missiles and related materials from reaching the island. (It was not a total blockade of the island, however, which could have been construed as an act of war.)
For a few days, the ensuing standoff seemed to be leading both powers to a global, even nuclear, confrontation, until a series of secret negotiations via several channels led to a stand-down of the quarantine. That came in exchange for the withdrawal of the missiles and a pledge not to install new ones, along with a secret addendum that the US would, a few months later, also draw down a number of older, now-obsolete missiles stationed in Turkey and Italy.
What the crisis did do, besides confirming Cuba’s insulation from further threats of invasion, was to create a push for the establishment of a communications “hotline” between Washington and Moscow to prevent such confrontations arising out of sudden surprises, as well as generate the impetus for the beginnings of nuclear limitations negotiations, which led to the first nuclear test ban treaty the following year.
In addition, there was a more general understanding of the “rules of the road” in mutual nuclear deterrence and the handling of future great power crises. That is, there should be real brakes to prevent a quick or thoughtless climb up the escalatory ladder towards the use of nuclear weapons — either as tactical battlefield weapons or as strategic ones designed to destroy entire cities.
Very little of this historical record seems a particularly close parallel to contemporary developments in Ukraine, to Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, or to Ukraine’s desire to continue its movement westward in terms of economics and security safety. In fact, perversely, as far as the Russians should be concerned, their invasion is creating stronger pressures within Ukraine to tie its future to the West, and simultaneously is creating more unity among the Nato nations than has been seen since the heights of the Cold War. In addition, it is pushing putatively neutral nations such as Sweden, Finland and Switzerland to affiliate themselves concretely with the Ukrainian cause.
Moreover, there is little in the current crisis that speaks to the surreptitious insertion of strategic nuclear weapons designed to destabilise the nuclear strategic balance between the US and Russia by establishing a new first-strike capability that could not be answered effectively.
This means, instead, that if we wish to search for parallels, we should consider carefully if the events leading up to the outbreak of World War 1 and the dilatory decisions of European leaders then and the automatic triggering of alliances are a parallel. Or, perhaps, is it in the events of 1938 and the appeasement by France and Britain in the face of German ambitions that represent a better parallel than the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Readers can review our earlier columns on the search for parallels here and here.)
Two facts are clear, however.
First, the world is watching the efforts to destroy the Ukrainian nation by a heavily armed neighbour in real time on multiple television and online channels.
Second, like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, 1914 and 1938, the current crisis will almost certainly be a turning point in international affairs now that the West has imposed far-ranging economic, financial and personal sanctions on Russia as that nation asserts that those actions are akin to acts of war against it.
Looking ahead to the time when the war grinds to a halt, columnist Tom Friedman has posited three alternative outcomes: a victory by Russia that requires a quisling-style leader and an army of occupation; a sour compromise that includes a permanent neutralisation of Ukraine but a general withdrawal by Russia from most areas; or even a putsch within the Kremlin by Putin’s own elite, watching and worrying about the ongoing destruction of Russia’s economy. (Read his column here.)
Regardless of how the conflict in Ukraine turns out, we are now almost certainly watching the beginnings of a Cold War 2.0 — and whatever repercussions that confrontation ultimately brings upon us all. DM
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