Observations of an expat: Is Ukraine another Cuba?

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The conventional wisdom is that nuclear Armageddon was avoided in October 1962 by a plucky iron-willed young American President. Not quite. A new book by award-wining Russian author Serhii Plokhy reveals that the Cuban Missile Crisis was created by poor communication at every level in both countries and that it was more a matter of luck rather than pluck that saved the world.

Miscommunication and misunderstanding remains a Russian-American problem and is now coming to the fore again over Ukraine.

But back to October 27, 1962. The US naval blockade of Cuba had been in force for five days. To persuade the Soviet submarines to return home President Kennedy ordered US ships to launch a continuous barrage of depth charges on any members of the Soviet underwater fleet that they found. The purpose was to harass rather than destroy.

But Valentin Savitsky, captain of nuclear-armed B-59 was not privy to American thinking. By the 27th of October his crew had endured two days of tension, diminishing air supplies and increasing heat. Savitsky gave the order to surface. He was immediately subjected to a barrage of tracer bullets fired by trigger happy US fighter pilots circling the area.

Convinced that war had started and he was under full-scale attack, the Soviet captain gave the order to dive and fire a nuclear torpedo.

Fortunately lady luck intervened. The captain of the US destroyer Cony realised the danger and flashed an apology from his signal light. It was spotted by the sub’s signals officer just as the B-59 slipped beneath the waves, and was only seen because his searchlight became stuck. The apology was immediately relayed to Savitsky who, at the last minute, countermanded his attack order.

It is too easy to criticise the military for being trigger happy. The truth is that their actions were the product of an atmosphere created by their political leaders. And that misunderstanding bordering on criminal ignorance was a failure of judgement of both Khruschev and Kennedy to comprehend the character and thought processes of the other and their countries’ respective priorities.

The same problems and issues appear to be rearing their head over Ukraine. There are lots of reasons for the Russian actions. And lots for the Western reaction. For a start, eastern and western Ukraine have historically been culturally and politically split with the eastern half facing towards Moscow and the western half looking towards Berlin and Vienna.

Next, from the Russian point of view, there are the geostrategic considerations. Most of Ukraine lies in the Great European Plain, aka, the tank invasion route in and out of Russia. The Russians are seriously worried that Ukraine will join NATO which will place tanks and tactical nuclear weapons right on their western border. Shades of Cuba in reverse.

Then there is the cultural/political element. There is actually a section of the Russian constitution which requires the government to protect “ethnic Russians” anywhere in the world. Putin has decided to define the definition of “ethnic Russians” as anyone, anywhere, who speaks Russian as a first language. Moscow claims that 500,000 “ethnic Russians” have requested Russian passports.

Finally there is the Kremlin’s belief that Russian national interests trump international law every time. In fact, international law, doesn’t really apply in Moscow. It is on this last point that the West has its biggest problem with Putin. A rules-based international system is regarded as the essential pre-requisite to the peaceful conduct of affairs between nations and the rock on which most of the post-war world has prospered.

Russia agreed to an independent Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It has already annexed Crimea and its “little green men” are fighting to permanently hive off the Donbass Region. That is contrary to international law.

Next is the Western belief that its interests are best served by the extension of liberal democratic values throughout the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. That is why most of Eastern Europe are now members of NATO and the European Union.

The exception is Ukraine. Not for wanting by many in the Ukrainian government who crave the protective and financial benefits of NATO and EU membership. The problem is that Ukraine has become a red line in Russian-American relations in much the same way as Finland was during the Cold War.  The West accepted Finnish membership of the Western Alliance would be interpreted by Moscow as an attack on its vital interests and the Russians in return allowed the Finns a democratic government.

President Joe Biden in a Tuesday phone call with Vladimir Putin proposed a summit to discuss deteriorating Russian-American relations. Ukraine will be high on the agenda, but also there will be lapsed nuclear disarmament discussions, human rights and Russian cyber-attacks. Putin has been coy in his response, saying that the prospect of a meeting was “dependent on future US actions”, a thinly reference to US sanctions. Biden responded with new sanctions over Russian interference in American elections.

Meanwhile, the Russian troops continue their build-up in eastern Ukraine and on the border with Russia. At last count there were 30,000 troops and 3,000 officers. Moscow claims that these troops are there for regular manoeuvres designed to react to the introduction of NATO troops in western Ukraine. It ominously added that they will be used if NATO reacts to current build-up.

A Biden-Putin summit is clearly needed as soon as possible. The world cannot rely on Lady Luck in Ukraine.

 

Serhii Plokhy’s “Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis” is published by Allen Lane.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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17 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 16th Apr '21 - 8:17pm

    A can of worms this one. In a pandemic world I can’t see voters being keen on a foreign adventure or importing Ukrainian problems.

    I realise that isn’t the point you make here Mr Arms but I don’t think that you can just gloss over it.

    In truth this has more the whiff of Yugoslavia than Cuba. although good luck partitioning Ukraine.

    I well remember the NATO troops at the airport when I first went to ex Yugoslavia. That said the Western interests in play in Yugoslavia probably are equally in play in Ukraine.

  • Poor communication at every level that was a feature of the Cuban missile crisis is a good analogy. At the time, President Kennedy made a point of referring repeatedly to the lessons of Barbara Tuchman’s book – The Guns of August. In the midst of the crisis, he told his brother Bobby: “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.”
    Given the passions of the moment, this was a nearly superhuman task. Would someone who had not read the book, or who had not studied history (as Kennedy had at Harvard), have been able to resist the advice of military men like Curtis LeMay, who wanted to evaporate Cuba with nuclear bombs?
    The conflict in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists started in the spring of 2014 and never ended. In July 2014, when it seemed that the Ukrainian army would retake all of the uncontrolled territories, first, Russian cross-border artillery fire, and then, a direct Russian invasion in August bolstered the forces of occupied Donbas, i.e. the “Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics,” and led to intense bloodshed. The Minsk Agreements were negotiated to provide for a peaceful resolution, but warfare has dragged on over the last seven years, taking the lives of civilians and servicemen.
    Ukraine’s defence minister accused Russia this week of preparing to potentially store nuclear weapons in Crimea and warned that Moscow could attack Ukraine to ensure water supplies for the annexed peninsula. While this may appear unlikely, President Putin is adamant that what occurs on Russian soil (which Crimea is as far as he is concerned) is nobody’s business but Russia.
    The Minsk agreements require withdrawal of Ukrainian forces and an autonomous government in the Donbas region. This is probably the best that can be achieved in the circumstances; while recognising that it could lead to a secession of the region in the future, just as Abkhazia and South Ossetia were carved out of Georgia.

  • John Marriott 17th Apr '21 - 9:09am

    @Joe Bourke
    Your reference to General Curtis LeMay reminds me of a slogan used by his opponents when he ran as Veep on Governor George Wallace’s pro segregational ticket in the 1968 Presidential Election. Following on, I suppose, from his hawkish stance during the Cuban missile crisis, the slogan went : “Bombs away, With Curt LeMay”. Wallace ended up with about 13% of the vote, which was considered not a bad result for a third party candidate.

    There are indeed parallels between Cuba and Ukraine, one of them being that in both cases it was a Democrat President in the White House. As for the other side, it’s the usual story of trying it on, the difference being that the backyard in question has moved nearly 6000 miles!

  • Robin Grayson 17th Apr '21 - 9:53am

    In defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as in all major climbdowns it was essential that both sides could genuinely claim victory. Victory for the west was clear for all to see via the western media, with the soviet ships taking home missiles etc. to the supposed humiliation to the soviets. In reality, there was a secret agreement making this possible, requiring the west to take home their missiles from Turkey which were close to the soviet border. So both sides won.

    As for the present crisis, it is important to remember that the root cause was the unilateral gifting by the Russian president o the Ukraine of the Ukraine of the Crimea as an act of warm friendship. Now the Russian media fail to mention this salient fact, and the Russian media repaint this as territorial aggression by the Ukraine. Putin wins massive Russian popularity by tapping into hurt Russian nationalism/patriotism. Of course the Ukraine does not mention the Ukraine was a gift, and the west overlooks the gifting – perfect for Putin.

  • Tom Arms………….Finally there is the Kremlin’s belief that Russian national interests trump international law every time. In fact, international law, doesn’t really apply in Moscow. It is on this last point that the West has its biggest problem with Putin………..

    As an American how you could write this with a ‘straight face’ is beyond me…

    The US has interfered in the internal affairs of countries far more than any nation since the days of Great Britain’s imperial expansion..Your ex-president broke treaties with friend and foe alike and, regarding Ukraine, a listen to the Nuland-Pyatt call puts the current situation into perspective..

  • @expats “Finally there is the Kremlin’s belief that Russian national interests trump international law every time.”
    Digresssing…
    We should remember Bejing has a similar mindset, specifically “The Party” doesn’t accept the nation-state boundaries that China agreed to after WWII.

  • Expats,

    WW2 ended the idea that the USA could isolate itself from global economic conditions or International conflicts. It was encapsulated in President Roosevelts 1944 speech to congress:
    “We are united in determination that this war shall not be followed by another interim which leads to new disaster- that we shall not repeat the tragic errors of ostrich isolationism—that we shall not repeat the excesses of the wild twenties when this Nation went for a joy ride on a roller coaster which ended in a tragic crash. . .
    “…We cannot be content… if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.
    This Republic had its beginning…under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
    “…these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
    “.We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all…
    Among these are:
    The right to a useful and remunerative job;
    The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
    The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
    The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
    The right of every family to a decent home;
    The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
    The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
    The right to a good education.
    America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

  • @Little Jackie Paper: I thought we were now living in “Global Britain.” A country which is reaching out to engage with the rest of the world in trade, culture and politics. If so we should be concerned about events that threaten those activities such as a clash between NATO and Russia over Ukraine.
    @expats: I am critical of American foreign policy– especially when it relates to breaches of international law– and have been in many of my past blogs. I was especially critical of Trump and George Dubyas unilateralist foreign policy. But the fact is that the postwar world and the the legal structures that underpin it are largely an American construct (UN, IMF, World Bank, NATO…) with the UK as a junior partner. Therefore it is in America’s interest to uphold it. The Soviet Union decided that the rules of the capitalist West were contrary to their interests and acted accordingly. The successor Russian state has largely carried on that tradition. A few examples: Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, novichok, cyber attacks, election interference, Navalny, breaches of the INF Treaty, the maintenance of kleptocracy….

  • Little Jackie Paper 17th Apr '21 - 1:02pm

    Joe

    Come on! There’s a world of difference between 1944 and Iraq, Yugoslavia etc. We can argue the rights and wrongs for sure but we’re a very long way from Roosevelt. You might as well bring Stalin into the discussion.

  • This is Paddy Ashdown on Lessons in foreign intervention http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/6662539.stm
    “I am convinced that, despite the disaster of Iraq, the international community has an increasingly important role in the world’s hotspots.
    In an ever more interdependent world, bodies like the United Nations and the European Union are inevitably being drawn into helping to resolve conflicts and rebuild shattered nations.
    And despite the high-profile failures, we do know how to do this. We have succeeded in post-conflict reconstruction more often than we have failed and the world is a safer place because of it.
    One estimate is that intervention by the UN has halved the number of wars and more than halved the number of casualties in conflicts round the world since the end of the Cold War.”
    “So the conclusion from Iraq is not that the international community should never intervene again. It is rather that future interveners should study history and prepare carefully.
    History teaches us these lessons for the interveners: leave your prejudices at home, keep your ambitions low, have enough resources to do the job, do not lose the golden hour, make security your first priority, involve the neighbours.
    And remember that post-conflict reconstruction is not for the faint-hearted. It requires toughness, strategic patience and a willingness to stay until the task is finished.”
    On Yugoslavia, this guardian article recounts Paddy’s views https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/nov/02/warcrimes.politics:
    “I am here because I think it was a terrible sin of the west to allow those years of war.” Ashdown accused foreign secretary Douglas Hurd of “using humanitarian aid to blackmail the victims of aggression into capitulation”, and prime minister John Major of calculated inaction over the Srebrenica massacre.’How was it possible to return to the politics of appeasement of the 1930s?'”

  • Little Jackie Paper 18th Apr '21 - 10:58am

    Tom Arms

    Global Britain does not mean intervention in every flashpoint. And very rightly so.

  • Little Jackie Paper 18th Apr '21 - 11:07am

    Joe

    Wars and conflicts are not somehow better because they come with blue helmets. I would have opposed Iraq had there been a UN resolution.

    I’d have opposed Iraq even if there had been WMD.

    Funnily enough judging from my visits to Bosnia it seems most people there actually quite liked the King of Bosnia. Even if they were rather less keen on the circumstances that put him there.

  • Little Jackie paper,

    there are few that would dispute the view that the 2nd Iraq war was a colossal strategic error. Paddy Ashdown writes in this piece “‘Rumsfeld asked me shortly after the Saddam statue fell to go into Iraq and advise Bremer [Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority]. Many of the American staff that I was working with and were working with me in Bosnia, went there in the early days to set up the green zone. But, you know, the bottom line is, I went to see Rumsfeld, I think, two weeks after Saddam Hussein’s statue fell, and he said to me, “What do you think we should do now, Paddy?” And I said, “Mr Secretary, it’s a bit late.”’
    The rate of intervention in the world has vastly increased since the end of the Cold War,’ says Ashdown. ‘Up to the Cold War, the United States-led international coalition intervened about once every three to four years on average. The United Nations about once every two years. Since the end of the Cold War the strike rate is once every two years for international coalitions led by the United States, nearly always.’
    “…intervention in order to preserve stability, the world’s stability, in an extremely turbulent and dangerous time, is part of the future. It’s part of the future for diplomats, for soldiers, for politicians and they have to learn how to do it.’

  • @little jackie paper. And I never said I did. Each situation should be judged on its merits, but surely “Global Britain” requires more rather than less intervention. Of course, there is also the issue of intervention which can range from quiet diplomacy to military action.

  • Little Jackie Paper 18th Apr '21 - 10:18pm

    Tom Arms

    ‘but surely “Global Britain” requires more rather than less intervention.’

    No – it does not. Where on Earth did you get that idea from?

  • @ Jackie Paper– Common sense. If you have more bilateral trade with more countries than that means more involvement with more countries.

  • Peter Martin 19th Apr '21 - 7:52am

    @ Tom Arms @ Little Jackie Paper,

    The US model of international trade backed up with a large military presence isn’t the only one. Many countries such as modern day Germany, modern day Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden etc seem to do perfectly well without invading or bombing anyone else when the fancy takes them.

    If anyone wants to buy what we want to sell at a price which is agreeable to both buyer and seller, why is there any need for Govt intervention?

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