The Cuban missile crisis and Ukraine

By Richard Falk and Howard Friel / Common Dreams

If President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev hadn’t acted against the hardline advice of their political and military advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, “nearly all then-living humans might have died, and few if any now alive would have ever existed.”

In his superb but harrowing book, “The Doomsday Machine,” Daniel Ellsberg continues: “Have we had a president since World War II who would have acted in those circumstances more responsibly, more prudently? Do we have such a president now? Does Russia?”

Which brings us to presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin on Ukraine today and several still-salient matters, including the U.S.-supported overthrow of Ukraine’s elected head of state, Viktor Yanukovych, a Russia ally, which was followed a few months later by Putin’s apparent decision to interfere in the 2016 presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Yanukovych was forced to flee Ukraine on February 22, 2014, pursuant to U.S. supported demonstrations in Kiev. In turn, the published report of the investigation of Russian election interference, headed by former FBI director, Robert Mueller, reported that “the first form of Russian election influence” began in “mid-2014” when the Russia-based “Internet Research Agency sent employees to the United States on an intelligence-gathering mission.” By “early to mid-2016,” this led to “operations” inside the United States “supporting the Trump campaign and disparaging candidate Hillary Clinton.”

The Mueller-reported decision by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election crossed a red line. But it followed the decision by President Obama and then Vice-President Biden to support the removal of Putin’s ally in Ukraine in 2014, which likewise crossed a red line.

Obama provocatively met with Ukraine’s unelected interim prime minister in the White House less than a month after Yanukovych had fled. This too crossed a red line, since the newly installed government in Ukraine “faced questions of credibility, legitimacy and inclusiveness arising from the way in which it came to power.”

It also seems likely that Russia’s decision in August 2008 to militarily intervene during the political unrest in the former Soviet republic of Georgia was a reaction, at least in part, to the Bucharest Summit Declaration four months earlier from the United States and other NATO members, which stated, about Georgia and Ukraine: “We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”

Given the status of Georgia and Ukraine as former Soviet republics and their territorial contiguity with Russia, this is roughly comparable to Russia publicly coveting Mexico as a formal alliance partner.

In this context, the focus of Russia’s current security demands—that NATO provide written guarantees to decline its  expansion to Ukraine—should be negotiated in good faith by the United States and its NATO partners. The alternative is potentially a continent-wide war on the scale of World War II.

Recently, Russia indicated that if the West fails to meet its security demands, “it could take measures like placing nuclear missiles close to the U.S. coastline.” This undoubtedly would be viewed by the Biden administration as a highly provocative escalation.

Why aren’t Western political provocations, like the stated goal of incorporating Ukraine into NATO, viewed as such when they pose security challenges to Russia’s territorial borders? Russia’s dependence on its nuclear capabilities also points to dangerous nuclear escalation in the absence of a political solution.

Current U.S.-Russian negotiations are further complicated by the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the subsequent U.S.-led ejection of Russia from the G8. However, consistent with the pattern, the Russian decision to annex Crimea was reportedly made the day after the February 22, 2014, removal of Yanukovych, which re-positioned Ukraine from a Russian ally to an openly courted member of NATO.

Complexities involving the political status of Crimea and the Russian-speaking provinces in eastern Ukraine, which include events dated back to February 2014 (which have not been sufficiently reviewed here in the United States), can be addressed more effectively by an accommodating diplomacy than by offsetting provocations.

To be clear, Russia’s threat to militarily invade Ukraine is a violation of the cardinal rule of international law, which is the prohibition against the threat or use of force by states in the conduct of their international relations. The United States and NATO members are thus correct to denounce Russia’s threats to invade Ukraine.

At the same time, the one-sided fact pattern that is disseminated here in the United States about events in Ukraine resembles that which has led in the past to calamitous wars, none likely worse than the one that is threatened now, this time with a rival nuclear power.

The status of Ukraine—as a NATO or EU member—does not directly implicate or threaten U.S. security concerns. Certainly, far less than the Soviet placement of ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, which possessed a range and capability to destroy U.S. civilization.

And far less than the current climate crisis which, like nuclear war, is an existential threat, when every key climate indicator signals a state of emergency requiring immediate and sustained focus, matters that would be subordinated yet again, this time due to the distraction of politically protracted and militarily dangerous developments in Ukraine.

President Kennedy prevented nuclear war with Russia largely by disregarding the hardline counsel of his ExComm advisers and Joint Chiefs of Staff, which urged air strikes and an invasion against Cuba. Khrushchev likewise acted contrary to his own hardliners.

This permitted the deal that was eventually made—Khrushchev pledged to remove the Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for a U.S. pledge to forego an invasion of Cuba and to remove its own nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Biden and Putin likewise should seek a Cuban-missile-style compromise. Biden and his NATO partners should seriously negotiate the security guarantees that Russia seeks, which pertain to its immediate territorial borders and national defense. Putin, in turn, must pledge to forego an invasion of Ukraine—just as the U.S. pledged to the Soviet Union sixty years ago that it would not invade Cuba.

Russia additionally would need to guarantee the cessation of any ongoing election interference and cyber attacks in the United States and elsewhere against the West, which should be balanced by reciprocal guarantees from the U.S. and NATO.

Due to the climate crisis, and to create a climate of cooperation instead of ongoing conflict, the United States and its allies should re-invite Russia to membership in a reconstituted G8, conditioned on a Russian commitment to do its part to help mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Russia to date has done little to contribute to climate-change mitigation efforts.

A reconstructed Group of 8 with a climate-crisis focus would resemble to a degree the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union agreed to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was signed in Moscow on August 5, 1963.

Richard Falk is Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, and Chair, Global Law, Queen Mary University London and author of “Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim.”
Howard Friel is author of “The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming” (Yale University Press) and with Richard Falk, “The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy” (Verso).