On the edge of Armageddon? Why the Ukraine conflict is dangerously similar to the Cuban missile crisis
History records that on October 16, 1962, then-US President John F. Kennedy received information from the CIA about the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. This event was the formal beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis — the first, and for a long time, the only event in world history that brought humanity to the brink of nuclear war.
Back then, cool heads – who had not yet forgotten the horrors of a real war – were able to prevent a catastrophe. Whether today's leaders will show the same restraint is far from certain.
Rhymes and echoes
Nineteenth century American humorist Mark Twain famously said, “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” Pakistani-British historian Tariq Ali is credited with a similar take: “History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away.”
Either could have been referring to today’s Russia-Ukraine conflict, which seems to be rhyming with, and echoing, a perilous episode from 60 years ago and 6,000 miles away – the Cuban Missile Crisis. Observers who recall the US-Soviet showdown of October 1962 can only hope that the latest confrontation between Washington and Moscow doesn’t require as much luck to avert a potentially planet-ending nuclear war.
The similarities – rhymes and echoes – are evident. For starters, the Ukraine and Cuban crises were both rooted at least partly in the same principle: A superpower can’t stand idly by when a geopolitical rival upsets the security balance between them.
In 1962, the trigger was the secret placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, right on America’s doorstep. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who ironically grew up in what was then Ukraine, saw the move as a way to protect the island against a US invasion after the failed Bay of Pigs assault in April 1961, as well as a tit-for-tat response to the Pentagon’s deployment of Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, which positioned Washington’s nuclear warheads to hit the USSR's territory in as few as ten minutes. At the time, the long-range missiles in Soviet territory took hours to fuel up and fire, meaning a delayed response to a US first strike.
“Since the Americans have already surrounded the Soviet Union with a ring of their military installations, we should pay them back in their own coin and give them a taste of their own medicine so that they find out for themselves how it feels to live as a target of nuclear arms,” Khrushchev was quoted as saying by Aleksandr Alekseev, then Moscow’s ambassador to Cuba.
US President John F. Kennedy didn’t see it that way when a U-2 spy plane spotted surface-to-surface missiles in Cuba on October 16. As Ukrainian-born author Sergey Plokhiy wrote in his 2021 book, ‘Nuclear Folly,’ Kennedy was initially inclined to order an attack on the missile sites, which easily could have escalated into a Soviet response and, eventually, mushroom clouds on both sides.
The American president wasn’t yet aware that the Soviets had already shipped nuclear warheads to Cuba. Nor did he know that the USSR had 43,000 troops on the island, as well as tactical nukes that could be used to destroy a US attack force. But Kennedy knew that having Soviet ballistic missiles just across the Florida Straits – Havana is only about 1,100 miles from Washington and 230 miles from Miami – was intolerable and potentially gave the USSR the ability to win a nuclear war with the US.
Russia has raised similar concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion. The Western military bloc was formed to ensure collective security against the USSR, but instead of reaping a peace dividend after the Soviet collapse in 1991, it has expanded to 30 states, nearly doubling in size. It also placed strategic weapons in Eastern Europe, which Moscow perceived as a threat.
As if those moves weren’t provocative enough, NATO has also pledged to eventually push into Ukraine and Georgia, which would expand its reach into two former Soviet republics on Russia’s borders. Tensions escalated further when a US-backed coup overthrew Ukraine’s elected government in 2014, setting off a war between Kiev and separatists in the Donbass that left an estimated 14,000 people dead even before Moscow began its military offensive last February.
Some observers have blamed the US and NATO for provoking the conflict. “As the one who started the Ukraine crisis and the biggest factor fueling it, the US needs to deeply reflect on its erroneous actions of exerting extreme pressure and fanning the flame on the Ukraine issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in July.
Pope Francis claimed in June that World War III had already been declared and reiterated his claim that NATO may have triggered the crisis. He cited an unidentified world leader who told him that the bloc was “barking at the gates of Russia” and pushed back against criticism that he had failed to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin.
I am simply against turning a complex situation into a distinction between good guys and bad guys, without considering the roots and self-interests, which are very complex.
NATO isn’t just a casual association of states. As UK cabinet minister Sajid Javid noted in February, shortly before the Russian offensive started, an encroachment on one member is an encroachment on all. He even referred to the 30 member states as “NATO territory,” as if the bloc were one giant nation.
In terms of security, it may as well be one country. As Article 5 of the NATO treaty states, an armed assault on one member is considered an attack on all. That was a heavy responsibility when NATO started with 12 close allies. It has become a far more precarious pledge with expansion eastward. A dust-up in Skopje or Tallinn, even if justifiable, could have just as much potential to trigger a nuclear conflagration as an attack against Berlin or Paris.
And what if one of the little brothers is a bad actor, essentially provoking a fight that the big brothers are bound to finish? From Russia’s perspective, Ukraine would pose just such a risk. Putin has accused Kiev of committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in Donbass, and Ukraine has failed to implement the Minsk agreements, the protocols brokered by Germany and France to bring peace to the region. Russia also has called for the “denazification” of Ukraine.
Moscow’s envoy to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, tried to explain Russia’s security concerns to a CBS News interviewer just four days before tanks rolled across Ukraine’s borders. Geopolitical rivals mustn’t trample on the principle of 'indivisible security', meaning neither NATO nor Russia should be allowed to strengthen its own security at the expense of the other party, he said.
In that context, adding Ukraine to NATO would be “not possible for us to swallow,” Antonov explained. His next comment made clear why such tactics aren’t in the interest of NATO member states, either:
You’ll see that there’s no space for us to retreat.
World War I was supposed to have taught politicians that hair-trigger alliances can bring unintended consequences, such as when the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo set off a global conflict that killed or maimed 40 million people. The resulting carnage was so devastating that it was supposed to be “the war to end all wars,” though tragically, rival blocs were going at it again – with even more deadly consequences – just 21 years later.
Songs of the war hawks
Cuba, an island nation of 7.5 million people known for sugar plantations, cigars and casinos before revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro overthrew US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, might have seemed like an obscure battleground to nearly bring Washington and Moscow to thermonuclear blows. However, given its proximity to the US, Castro’s seizing of American-owned assets and Washington’s Cold War 'domino theory' on the spread of communism, it’s easy to see why the stakes were so high.
Castro, who went on to rule Cuba until 2008 and died in 2016, was arguably just the sort of little brother who could stir up conflict in his neighborhood. He allegedly ordered the shootdown of an American U-2 spy plane at the height of the October 1962 crisis, and even after Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed on a deal to end the conflict – including a US guarantee against invading Cuba and an unofficial promise to remove the Jupiter missiles in Turkey – the generalissimo demanded a nuclear first strike against Washington. Castro also refused to allow the verification measures that the US insisted upon to close the agreement, leading to humiliating inspections of Soviet ships at sea on their return voyages to take the missiles back home.
There were plenty of hawks on the US side, too. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who once acknowledged that he would have been tried as a war criminal if the US lost to Japan in World War II, wasn’t satisfied with Kennedy’s plan to blockade Cuba. He advised the commander-in-chief to deploy the US Navy and Strategic Air Command to surround the island nation and, if necessary, “fry it.” He considered it America’s “greatest defeat” when Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated a peaceful solution. As the peace deal was coming together, LeMay demanded an assault on Cuba the next day.
There were several incidents during the crisis that could have set off a devastating chain of events. At the time, the US Strategic Air Command was placed on DEFCON 2 status for the first time ever.
That’s why two US F-102 interceptor jets were armed with nuclear-tipped missiles when they flew out to escort a U-2 that had gone missing during a mission to collect air samples over the North Pole on October 27. The spy plane had strayed into Soviet airspace, which could have prompted a tragically panicked response.
Khrushchev later noted that the plane could have been mistaken for an American nuclear bomber, “which might [have] push[ed] us to a fateful step.” And luckily, the Soviet MiGs that chased the U-2 over the Chukotka Peninsula turned back rather than provoking a conflict with the nuclear-armed F-102s as the spy plane re-entered US airspace.
That incident wasn’t even the scariest close call that day. As Plokhy recounted in his book, Soviet submarine commander Vasily Arkhipov likely prevented nuclear war during a hair-raising encounter with a US Navy convoy. Arkhipov was chief of staff for a group of four diesel-powered subs that had been sent to the region to help protect Soviet ships, and he was aboard one of them, the B-59.
The sub was operating in international waters of the Sargasso Sea when it was detected by US forces, which dropped non-lethal depth charges to try to force it to the surface. Aboard the sweltering B-59 with communications shut off, officers perceived that their vessel was under attack, perhaps at the start of World War III. The Soviet captain, Valentin Savitsky, ordered that the sub’s nuclear-armed torpedo be prepared to fire.
“We’ll hit them with everything we’ve got,” Savitsky reportedly said. “We’ll die, but we’ll sink them all. We won’t disgrace the fleet.”
Savitsky agreed to surface only after having his nuclear weapon readied in its tube. When a Navy plane dropped flares to get a better photo of the B-59, the Soviets again thought they were under attack, and the captain ordered an emergency dive. But before going back into the sub, Arkhipov looked back and saw a searchlight on the USS Cony signaling an apology. Savitsky and the political officer on board the B-59 agreed to a nuclear launch, but Arkhipov vetoed the decision.
An entire US Navy task force likely would have been destroyed by the 10-kiloton warhead, and Washington almost certainly have responded with a nuclear strike against the USSR. As Arthur Schlesinger, an advisor to Kennedy, later said of the Cuban crisis,
This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.
Fast-forward to today, and the increasingly aggressive involvement of the US and other NATO members in the Ukraine conflict threatens to create similarly dangerous moments – at least in the eyes of Russian leaders, whose country has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear shadow is rising again
In fact, Russia’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, told RT in a July interview that the US and UK actually want to escalate the conflict into a larger confrontation between Moscow and European Union members.
NATO states are not only pumping more and increasingly advanced weapons into Ukraine, but they’re keeping Kiev from seeking a negotiated peace and forcing the impoverished country to use their firepower in riskier ways, Lavrov said. “Our American counterparts, British counterparts . . . with active support from Germans, the Polish and the Baltic states, they really want to turn this war into a real war and start a confrontation between Russia and European states.”
Some US Republican lawmakers have called the conflict a “proxy war.” In May, Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), openly framed the crisis that way in defending his support for a $40 billion Ukraine aid package. “Investing in the destruction of our adversary’s military, without losing a single American troop, strikes me as a good idea,” he said at the time.
That strategy has given rise to jokes that Washington and its allies are prepared to support Kiev as it fights Russian forces “to the last Ukrainian.” Doug Bandow, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan and now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has argued that Western powers “wantonly and recklessly ignored both Russian interests and consequent threats, leaving Ukrainians to pay the price.” He added that Western support for Kiev will stop at sanctioning Russia and providing weapons. “Equip Ukrainians to fight, sure. Help Ukrainians fight, forget it.”
However, as the Cuban crisis illustrated, shoving matches between superpowers can easily escalate, leading to unintended consequences. US President Joe Biden appeared to create a tripwire for such an escalation in March, when he vowed that Washington would respond if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine. Weeks later, members of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion alleged that they had been attacked with chemical weapons. The unsupported allegation led to a “scramble inside the White House” to match Biden’s rhetoric “while avoiding further escalation,” Politico reported in April.
Former Democrat presidential candidate and congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran, warned in July that Washington’s “proxy war” with Russia was putting the American people in danger. “President Biden himself says he has no idea when or how it’s going to end, but we know where this escalation leads,” Gabbard said in a Fox News interview.
“It leads us closer and closer to the brink of a nuclear war with Russia.”
Biden himself acknowledged the heightened risk this month. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he told an audience of Democrat donors. He warned that a catastrophic result would likely be unavoidable if Russia were to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
The escalations have only continued in recent weeks. With the US sending longer-range weaponry to Kiev and providing intelligence used to direct fire on Russian forces, Putin called for the mobilization of as many as 300,000 reserve troops and pointed out that he was prepared to use “all means” to defend the territorial integrity of Russian lands. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, replied that any use of nuclear weapons by Moscow would be met with “catastrophic consequences.”
Antonov subsequently warned that there is no such thing as a limited nuclear conflict. American military planners “apparently hope that the US would be able to take cover behind the ocean if such a conflict happens in Europe with British and French nuclear weapons,” he said. “I would stress that this is an extremely dangerous experiment.” The ambassador suggested that the 60-year anniversary of the Cuban crisis is a good time to look at the foreign policy lessons of that episode, including the understanding that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
However, Western leaders have dismissed the security concerns that Russia raised in Ukraine, with Biden accusing Moscow of “genocide” and calling the offensive against Kiev an “unprovoked and unjustified attack.” Similarly, US leaders didn’t properly consider the ramifications of their policy of trying to overthrow Castro’s regime, according to Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara.
Reflecting on the crisis 40 years after it ended, McNamara conceded that Washington gave Castro and Khrushchev good reason to fear a US invasion of the island. “'If I were in Cuban or Soviet shoes, I would have thought so, too,” he said at a conference in 2002. “We as a superpower did not look through to the ends of our actions. That was a real weakness.”
Antonov fears that a similar mistake is being made today. “I want to believe that, despite all the difficulties, we and the Americans have not yet approached a dangerous threshold of falling into the abyss of nuclear conflict,” he said. “It is important to stop threatening us.”