On 22nd October 1962 President John F Kennedy took to live television to warn the American public that Soviet nuclear missiles had been discovered on Cuba, a mere ninety miles from the Florida coast. The American military, including the Strategic Air Command with its B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons, was put on full alert. For the next six days, the world held its breath as the Americans affected ostentatious preparations for an invasion of Cuba and the US Navy ‘quarantined’ the island, a deliberately chosen word as it the blockade it was actually imposing, was in international law, an act of war. The unthinkable, another world war, and in all probability a nuclear one, threatened to erupt at any moment.
President Biden has not taken to a live televised address as yet but the Western media has woken up to the fact large Russian troop movements are taking place, 100,000 or so, on the Ukrainian border, sabre-rattling on a scale not seen in Europe since the Cold War. If a full-scale Russian invasion takes place, will there be a reaction from NATO, the American-led alliance of which the UK and most of the EU are members? At the time of writing (26th January 2022) Western military hardware is being flown to Ukraine and President Biden is considering reinforcing the American military presence in Europe.
As in 1962, the prospect of war is terrifying. Even in the unlikely event the fighting was confined to Ukraine, financial and energy markets would be thrown into turmoil, millions of refugees could take to the roads in the depths of winter and Russia would almost certainly cut off gas supplies to western Europe plunging much of the continent into darkness and cold.
There has been bad blood between Russia and Ukraine for centuries as the latter was a reluctant part of the Russian and Soviet empires. Parts of Ukraine briefly broke away with the collapse of the Tsarist Empire in 1917 only to be quickly incorporated into the USSR by the Bolsheviks. The 1930s saw Stalin ruthlessly enforce the collectivisation of agriculture and 4-5 million people died in Ukraine, the breadbasket of the USSR, in a man-made famine, attempting to break the spirit of separatism in the process. When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 many Ukrainians naively regarded the Germans as liberators and the country saw both Soviet and anti-Soviet guerrilla movements. When the war against Germany was won, the Red Army crushed the Ukrainian nationalist militias that had emerged during it, killing 110,000 in a violent counter-insurgency that lasted until the early 1950s.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave Ukraine another shot at independence which it established during Russia’s nadir. In more recent times, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has made it his life’s mission to restore Russia’s position in the world; the military has been reinvigorated and some of the former Soviet republics that broke away, primarily those in central Asia but also Belarus, have become to all intents and purposes, Russian client states. Bucking the trend are the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that have become members of both the EU and NATO and Ukraine, which is a member of neither but which is orientating itself to the West.
What we are seeing at the moment, is Putin drawing his line in the sand. It is doubtful he wants war; Russia needs the money from its energy exports and the Russian economy could be broken by severe Western sanctions. Nor is modern Russia the same as the old USSR and Putin is not Stalin. Public opinion cannot be ignored and Russia has a conscript army. It is doubtful if the Russian public wants war and they are no keener, to see their sons and daughters die than anyone else.
There are also considerable geographic and practical difficulties. Ukraine, as we can see from the map of it superimposed on Europe, is a large country. A hundred thousand troops supported by airpower, are probably enough to punch their way the short distance from the Belarus border to Kyiv but they are nowhere near enough to subdue the entire country.
On the other hand, acting tough on the international stage can be politically popular. There is a danger Biden and Johnson, may use the crisis to try to boost their flagging popularity and rally their divided countries behind them. Macron too is looking at elections in the near future and brinkmanship has always the risk of getting out of control.
Putin has clearly succeeded in gaining our attention, but to what end?
Westerners find it difficult to understand Russian security concerns. The country has been the graveyard of invading armies. The idea that the EU, an organisation that moves at a glacial pace and which seeks consensus on all major issues, could get agreement from its members to attack Russia is ludicrous and it is difficult to see any scenario where the United States, with or without NATO allies would invade Russia. However, a war on Russia’s borders where the US could use its high-tech weapons against Russian forces or against Russia itself does not seem entirely unplausible. Before the USSR collapsed, the Red Army surrounded West Berlin and stood just outside Lübeck, thirty miles or so from the suburbs of Hamburg. Now NATO troops are in Estonia, sixty miles from Saint Petersburg and Ukraine’s borders are close to major Russian cities such as Rostov and Bryansk. Imagine how Americans might feel if the Russian army was in Ontario or how the English might react if Russian troops were invited into an independent Scotland.
Putin has not addressed the Russian nation on the Ukraine crisis, in fact Russian diplomats are downplaying the military build-up on Ukraine’s borders as nothing of consequence. It is doubtful though if the tanks will return to their bases until Russia achieves a clear political and strategic benefit. To understand why let’s return to 1962 when the Soviets backed down for two main reasons:
- The Americans had overwhelming local military superiority in the vicinity of Cuba.
- The Caribbean was Uncle Sam’s backyard. The US had a vital defence interest there, the USSR did not.
Today, the positions are reversed, Ukraine is in Russia’s back yard and it can bring overwhelming military force to bear in eastern Europe, the US and NATO cannot, nor is Ukraine vital to either American or European defence. That gives Putin, a canny and ruthless operator of the highest calibre, a psychological advantage he is unlikely to squander.
In the coming days and weeks, we can expect Russia to demand the rollback of NATO forces from former parts of the USSR, the withdrawal of NATO military personnel from Ukraine, and a cast-iron assurance that Ukraine will not join NATO or the EU. I doubt Biden will countenance the first, but the remaining goals are very achievable. In 1962 the Soviets pulled out of Cuba in return for a public American assurance the US would not attack the island and a secret withdrawal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey. The current crisis might be resolved by Ukraine being denied NATO or EU membership in return for a Russian assurance it will not attack it.
Of course, the Kennedy/Khrushchev deal did not mean the US left Cuba alone. The island is still subject to harsh American economic sanctions and the CIA has doggedly persisted with clandestine attempts to engineer regime change in Havana. Even after Russian tanks go back to their barracks, we can expect similar attempts from the Kremlin to make Kyiv more compliant. Since Ukrainian independence, Russia has seized Crimea from Ukraine and infiltrated the eastern Donbas region, effectively annexing both. In both cases the local population is overwhelmingly Russian in identity and sentiment, indeed Crimea was part of Russia until the 1960s until Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine. Then, it hardly mattered as both were in the USSR and it was simply the change of an administrative boundary. Russia has gained the Crimea and eastern Donbas through ‘hybrid war’ rather than open invasion, infiltrating the areas with plainclothes soldiers before declaring their hand. Fighting has continued on a limited but not inconsequential scale since, complete with frequent artillery exchanges. The Russian News agency Tass puts the dead in the fighting since 2014 at 14,000. Largely ignored in the West, the conflict briefly caught international attention when the Malaysian airliner MH17 was shot down, almost certainly by Russian forces or their proxies in 2014. The last fifteen years indicates Russian pressure on Ukraine is unlikely to wane.
- Overy, (R), The Dictators (2004) p.42 ↑
- Overy, (R), The Dictators (2004) p.525 ↑
- https://www.reddit.com/r/europe/comments/8moifm/the_real_size_of_ukraine_over_europe/ ↑
- https://tass.com/world/1289095 ↑
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam