Observations of an ex pat: Blink

Vladimir Putin is daring the West to blink first.

It is the second time since 1945 that the nuclear super powers have been dragged to the brink of the abyss.

In October 1963 it was the Americans who felt threatened. Soviet missiles were moving into their backyard. This time it is the Russians. No US nuclear weapons are being sent to Ukraine, but Russia claims that Washington is using Ukraine as its proxy to—using Putin’s words—“destroy Russia.” But that is where the reverse parallels end. Ukraine is no Cuba. It is more dangerous.

For a start Putin is not Khrushchev. The Soviet system had many faults. It made no pretence of being democratic and its stated aim was the overthrow of Western capitalism. But one of its strengths was that, in 1963 at least, the Politburo was more of a collective leadership than it is today. There was a party leader, but there were others behind him who held significant influence and could replace him in a peaceful transition. In fact, that is exactly what happened.

Putin is an elected dictator. His stranglehold of the media, the judiciary and the electoral commission casts a huge shadow over the Russian ballot box.

Once elected, Putin’s power is far greater than that of his post-Stalinist Soviet successors. He maintains and dispenses that power with a system that combines old-style feudal fealty with kleptocracy masked by religiously-fuelled populist nationalism. And because Putin is elected he has greater domestic political legitimacy than his Soviet predecessors.

This legitimacy, however, has a price—success. If the Russian President fails to deliver he can be removed more easily than the old communist leaders. And because there is no obvious successor or mechanism for finding one, Putin is more likely to resort to drastic measures to stay in power.

Under Soviet rule, the Russian people were locked into their country behind an Iron Curtain. Today they are free to travel. And they are. In the three weeks following the start of the Ukraine War an estimated 200,000 Russians fled their country. Following this week’s partial mobilisation,of reservists all the flights out of Russia were immediately booked solid for days in advance and the roads leading to the borders of neighbouring countries were blocked with one-way traffic. At the same time, more than 1,000 anti-war protesters were arrested in two days.

Then there is the weaponry. Both Russia and NATO have nuclear arsenals capable of blowing up the world several times over. What is important is the delivery systems and both sides are better equipped than they were in 1962. For a start, America’s first submarine launched ballistic missiles (Polaris) had only just come into service. Now the nearly undetectable underwater nuclear missile platforms are at the heart of the nuclear deterrent of both NATO and Russia. But Moscow currently has the edge on launch systems.

Putin’s arsenal includes the new hypersonic Kinzhal missile which can travel at 12 times the speed of sound. Moscow claims it is “unstoppable.” The Russians have also deployed underwater nuclear drones called Poseidon which are designed to attack coastal cities and create tsunamis. On land, the Russians new intercontinental ballistic star is the Samat missile with a range of 11,000 missiles. It is silo-based but the Yars can be mounted on the back of a difficult to detect lorry or flatbed railway car and has a range of 7,000 miles. There are more at the strategic, intermediate-range and tactical level.

NATO has also changed since 1962. Europe is still heavily dependent on the US nuclear umbrella, but both the British and French deterrents are far more effective than they were 60 years ago. In conventional terms, NATO has two million troops in Europe against Russia’s million (minus their losses in Ukraine and plus 300,000 in the latest “partial mobilisation).

Of greater significance is the political and economic changes in Europe and America. In 1962 Americans were mentally prepared for a showdown with Moscow. In 2022 they are tired of fighting “other people’s wars”, divided politically, more focused on Asia and China and are only just waking up to the fact that the Cold War did not end in 1991. It only paused for a few years.

Europe, for its part now has the European Union which has raised the continent to new heights of prosperity. Both the EU and NATO have drawn most of the former Soviet satellites into their orbit. But Europe has failed to rise to the occasion in military terms and British withdrawal from the EU has weakened the alliance. In economic terms, Europe has allowed itself to become dependent on Russian energy and there is a real fear that this dependence will cause Europe to cave-in. Although Putin’s sabre-rattling appears to harden European resolve.

Despite the differences with events of more than half a century ago there are stark similarities. The one who blinks first loses. And if neither side blinks we all lose.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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