So many great crises of the past are reduced to anniversaries: they emerge for one day into the spotlight of media attention and then vanish for another year or another decade. This year’s anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, however, feels different. Suddenly the past is catching up with us. In September, Vladimir Putin said that in the case of “a threat to territorial integrity of our country, in order to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly use all means at our disposal. This is not a bluff.” This sinister talk was interpreted by many as an indication that the Russian leader might use nuclear weapons to prevent his defeat and humiliation in Ukraine. Thus, the drama that played out 60 years ago acquired a startlingly fresh resonance.
In May 1962, Nikita Khrushchev came up with an idea that he thought was brilliant: to send nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to the island of Cuba – without the US knowing. This impetuous project, hastily implemented, resulted in the greatest incident of nuclear brinkmanship in history. In his oral recollections, edited by his son Sergei, Khrushchev elaborated his motives. He feared arrogant Americans would attempt to overthrow the Castro regime, thereby humiliating the Soviet Union, Cuba’s sponsor. The missiles were sent as a deterrent.
The Soviet military embraced Khrushchev’s idea with enthusiasm. They itched to rectify a military balance that was tipped in favour of the US. The Cuban revolutionaries also approved. Nobody, however, asked Khrushchev what would happen if the Americans discovered the missiles en route to Cuba, before they were ready, or if they reacted violently to them once they were installed. There was no “plan B”.
This failure was compounded by sloppy Soviet planning. The head of the Strategic Missile Force, Marshal Sergei Biryuzov, promised Khrushchev that Americans would not discover Soviet missiles because palm trees would cover them. One expert, who knew Cuba’s vegetation better, wanted to object, only to have his superior press on his foot under the table, to make him shut up. The tradition of telling bosses what they wanted to hear while sweeping awkward realities under the rug is not Soviet-Russian monopoly. Yet tradition truly flourished under the Soviets, and warped their decision-making, even in life-and-death situations.
In any case, the Soviet military managed to do what seemed almost impossible: they shipped 42,000 troops alongside tactical and intermediary missiles with nuclear warheads through the Channel and across the Atlantic without British and American intelligence finding out. At first, tropical storms prevented U-2 reconnaissance planes discovering Soviet missiles in situ, but as the weather improved the inevitable happened – palm trees, it turned out, weren’t enough of a disguise.
Khrushchev’s gamble put Kennedy under immense pressure to authorise a first strike against the Soviet Union. Martin Sherwin, in his recent history of the crisis, writes that the US military were just as ready as their counterparts to wage a nuclear war. Fortunately, they were less irresponsible and paid more careful attention to detail. They admitted to Kennedy that they could not guarantee the total obliteration of Soviet missiles. This cooled the tempers in the White House, and shifted the discussion to a military blockade instead.
Khrushchev began to grope for an exit. He was helped by the White House, which opened a line of secret communication via the Soviet ambassador. In his usual way, he effected the retreat without planning and in haste. It was messy and humiliating. While the world reacted with a huge sigh of relief, Khrushchev took pains to paint his ignominious defeat as “victory”. Again the White House helped the Soviet leader by agreeing on a secret trade-off: it would remove obsolete US missiles from Turkey. Yet this could not offset the the perception that Khrushchev had “blinked”. His colleagues, who waited in silence, passed a final verdict on his authority two years after the crisis. Fed up with his unpredictability and scared by his recklessness, they removed him from power.
Today’s discussion of nuclear brinkmanship takes place in a radically different environment, but some people have learned from the follies of 1962 more than others. There is a whole library of excellent books by US historians on the Cuban missile crisis. Innumerable conferences, seminars and “games” have taken place in an attempt to learn the lessons. No wonder that Biden, his people and the US military no longer share the Kennedy-era “gung-ho” approach to nuclear war. On the contrary, they are extremely careful and attentive to the slightest dangers of escalation in Ukraine. And they are determined that a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons should be maintained.
In Moscow, the environment is quite the opposite. Putin, his propagandists and top military no longer say “nuclear war must not be waged”. Instead, they seem to be stoking fears of nuclear conflict. The story of Khrushchev’s gamble and retreat is rarely discussed, and its details have not been digested by the current cohort of decision-makers. Many crucial files still remain secret and forgotten, gathering dust in archives.
Just like 60 years ago, many in Putin’s entourage have been trying to work out how he might be able extricate himself from the situation he’s created. Nuclear escalation seems to be a joker that Putin wants to keep in play. What will he do if more retreat and humiliation come his way? The discussion tends to go in circles, focusing on Putin’s megalomania and his habit of surprising people. All of which leaves a room for a disconcerting level of uncertainty. Clearly, Putin intends to keep it that way. So far, the Russian ruler links the preservation of Russia’s “sovereignty” not to successful diplomacy but to nuclear deterrence and, if need be, brinkmanship.
There is another joker in the current pack: Ukraine’s politicians and its military. Many of them regret relinquishing the country’s nuclear status after the Soviet collapse. At the same time, they dismiss Putin’s threats as sabre-rattling. This is only logical for now: Ukrainians are aware of their new superiority in conventional arms and want to press their advantage to the maximum.
This, however, creates an uneasy triangle. The Ukrainian offensive, backed by US weapons and intelligence, has become part of a precarious web of international security. Will the Ukrainians push to regain all their lost territory or stop at the border of Crimea? Will they start shelling Sevastopol with US-provided missile launchers? If they do, the pressure on Putin to escalate would increase enormously.
Imagine what Kennedy would have done in October 1962 had the Cubans been given the opportunity to shell cities in Florida. If the Kremlin has no more conventional ways to escalate, the temptation to use a tactical nuclear device will grow. We can’t know what lessons the Russian leader might have learned from the Cuban missile crisis. One, however, probably has registered: after 1962, Khrushchev had to go. For Putin, this time, it is not only the issue of his life and fortune. He seems to have convinced himself that without him Russia would perish. And, as his favourite TV commentator said at the start of the war in Ukraine: “Why do we need the world if Russia is not in it?” As his delusional gamble in Ukraine produces one military retreat after another, Putin has to find an exit. We simply have no means of knowing what kind of an exit he will choose, and whether it will come with a bang.
Vladislav Zubok is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and author of Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, which was a finalist for the 2022 Cundill history prize