Sixty years ago, true statecraft avoided a nuclear war. We need that again over Ukraine | Jonathan Steele

The danger of a quick slide into all-out nuclear war between Russia and the US is less, but in other ways the risk we face is more alarming

Anyone who hoped that Vladimir Putin would declare victory in Ukraine and withdraw his failing troops must now admit that no such outcome is realistic. In a revealing quote during a meeting last week with about a hundred academics from 40 countries, Putin rejected it.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a highly respected thinktank editor who was the meeting’s moderator, had the courage to ask the Russian president if he would retreat like the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did in the 1962 Cuban crisis. “Certainly not,” Putin replied. To general laughter, according to the Kremlin transcript, he went on: “I cannot imagine myself in the role of Khrushchev. No way.”

The amusement was presumably prompted not just by the physical and attitudinal contrast between Putin, the cold disciplinarian and fitness freak, and Khrushchev, the pot-bellied and jolly reformer who ruled Russia erratically after Stalin’s death. Everyone remembered how Khrushchev was dumped out of power by his colleagues two years after the Cuban adventure.

Putin’s comment leaves us facing the bleakest of scenarios. We now have no prospect of unilateral Russian retreat. It comes on top of the grim reality that there is no basis for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine since Putin made the stupid mistake in September of annexing four Ukrainian provinces, thereby undermining any chance of mutual concessions and an agreed pull-back, since the Russian parliament now considers the regions part of Russia.

A Soviet short-range missile deployed during the 1962 crisis on display at the Morro Cabana complex in Havana.
A Soviet short-range missile deployed during the 1962 crisis on display at the Morro Cabana complex in Havana. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

As the fighting has intensified, both sides have increased their demands and hardened their positions. Back in March, a month after the Russian invasion, a deal was possible. Putin had recognised his dispatch of troops to occupy Kyiv and effect regime change had failed on the battlefield. Reports suggest Putin mainly wanted Ukraine to renounce its ambition to join Nato and accept autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk, in line with the Minsk agreements of 2015. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, was willing to consider Russia’s demands in exchange for a ceasefire and a Russian withdrawal, while the status of Crimea was left for later discussion. ​

That did not happen. Enter Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, their interventions, and the sense that what had been a war to defend and restore Ukraine’s sovereignty had became a proxy war between the west and Russia.​

And at the back of it all lurks the nuclear mushroom cloud. Not since 1962 has the world been in such danger. The crisis of October 1962 was worse than today’s confrontation in one key respect. The working assumption was that any use of force by the US president, John F Kennedy, to stop Soviet ships carrying nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba would quickly escalate into a launch of nuclear weapons at American and Soviet cities. Both superpowers put their arsenals on high alert. The world faced the existential threat of global suicide.

In today’s crisis the talk is of using so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Tactical is an elastic concept, of course, and today’s US nuclear bombs, like the B61s that Biden is sending to US bases in Britain, are 30 times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. The Pentagon released the unclassified sections of its long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review last week. They show that efforts by arms control experts to persuade the Biden administration to support “no first use” have failed. The US will not abandon its longstanding readiness to escalate to the nuclear level and respond with nuclear weapons to a non-nuclear conventional attack. Russian doctrine is depressingly similar, and Putin has said he will use whatever weaponry is needed if Russian territory comes under attack.

Biden has shown some restraint. He has resisted Ukrainian requests for long-range rockets that could hit Russian cities and provoke an all-out war between Russian and Nato forces. He has turned down Zelenskiy’s call for Nato to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. He has not sent US troops to Ukraine, and made sure no other Nato country sends troops either.

But even though the risks of a quick slide into all-out nuclear war are less today than in 1962, there are other dangers inherent in today’s crisis that make it more alarming.

First among them is the absence of any negotiating forum or an agenda for mutual concessions. Both sides want military victory and are lured by the mirage that it is obtainable. There is not even a basis for a ceasefire, since each side is sure its opponent will use a truce to train more troops, obtain more weaponry and regroup its forces into better positions.

In 1962 there was a relatively simple basis for de-escalating and resolving the crisis quickly. Khrushchev’s dispatch of nuclear missiles to Cuba was not prompted by strategic necessity or the need to defend Soviet territory. It was a gamble and an effort to achieve strategic parity with US power on the cheap. Faced with Kennedy’s determination to use force, Khrushchev could and did make a U-turn. To make it less humiliating for him, and give the impression of mutual concessions, Kennedy publicly pledged not to invade Cuba. He also agreed to withdraw the outdated medium-range Jupiter missiles that were deployed close to the Soviet border in Turkey. As a gesture of goodwill Khrushchev offered not to publicise this US concession.

After 13 days of nail-biting tension, the 1962 crisis ended with a breath of common sense and statecraft on both sides. If only the same qualities could be revived over Ukraine today.

  • Jonathan Steele is a former Guardian correspondent in Moscow

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Jonathan Steele

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