Rising tensions between Washington and Moscow are reminiscent of the missile crisis 60 years ago that nearly triggered nuclear war
On October 16, 1962, US President John F. Kennedy received information from the CIA about the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. This event, which took place exactly 60 years ago, was the formal beginning of the Cuban missile crisis — the first and for a long time the only event in world history that brought humanity to the brink of nuclear war. Then, the cool heads of politicians and the military, who had not yet forgotten the horrors of a real war, were able to prevent a catastrophe. Whether today’s leaders will show the same restraint is far from certain.
Rhymes and echoes
Nineteenth century American humorist Mark Twain famously said, “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” Pakistani-British historian Tariq Ali is credited with a similar take: “History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away.”
Either wordsmith could have been referring to today’s Russia-Ukraine conflict, which seems to be rhyming with, and echoing, a perilous episode from 60 years ago and 6,000 miles away – the Cuban Missile Crisis. Observers who recall the US-Soviet showdown of October 1962 can only hope that the latest confrontation between Washington and Moscow doesn’t require as much luck to avert a potentially planet-ending nuclear war.
The similarities – what Twain would call rhymes and Ali would call echoes – are evident. For starters, the Ukraine and Cuban crises were both rooted at least partly in the same principle: A superpower can’t stand idly by when a geopolitical rival upsets the security balance between them.
In 1962, the triggering event was the secret placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, right on America’s doorstep. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev saw the move as a way to protect Cuba against a US invasion after the failed Bay of Pigs assault in April 1961, as well as a tit-for-tat response to the Pentagon’s deployment of Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, which positioned Washington’s nuclear warheads to hit USSR territory in as few as 10 minutes. At the time, the long-range missiles in Soviet territory took hours to fuel up and fire, meaning a delayed response to a US first strike.
“Since the Americans have already surrounded the Soviet Union with a ring of their military installations, we should pay them back in their own coin and give them a taste of their own medicine so that they find out for themselves how it feels to live as a target of nuclear arms,” Khrushchev was quoted as saying by Aleksandr Alekseev, then Moscow’s ambassador to Cuba.
US President John F. Kennedy didn’t see it that way when a U-2 spy plane spotted surface-to-surface missiles in Cuba on October 16. As Ukrainian-born author Serhii Plokhy wrote in his 2021 book, ‘Nuclear Folly,’ Kennedy was initially inclined to order an attack on the missile sites, which easily could have escalated into a Soviet response and, eventually, mushroom clouds on both sides.
The American president wasn’t yet aware that the Soviets had already shipped nuclear warheads to Cuba. Nor did he know that the USSR had 43,000 troops on the island, as well as tactical nukes that could be used to destroy a US attack force. But Kennedy knew that having Soviet ballistic missiles just across the Florida Straits – Havana is only about 1,100 miles from Washington and 230 miles from Miami – was intolerable and potentially gave the USSR the ability to win a nuclear war with the US.
Russia has raised similar concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion. The Western military alliance was formed to ensure collective security against the USSR, but instead of reaping a peace dividend after the Soviet collapse in 1991, the bloc expanded to 30 states, nearly doubling in size. It also placed strategic weapons in Eastern Europe, which Moscow perceived as a threat.
As if those moves weren’t provocative enough, NATO has also pledged to eventually let Ukraine and Georgia join the US-led bloc, which would expand its reach into two former Soviet republics on Russia’s borders. Tensions escalated further when a US-backed coup overthrew Ukraine’s elected government in 2014, setting off a war between Kiev and separatists in the Donbass that left an estimated 14,000 people dead even before Russia began its military offensive last February.
Some observers have blamed the US and NATO for provoking the conflict. “As the one who started the Ukraine crisis and the biggest factor fueling it, the US needs to deeply reflect on its erroneous actions of exerting extreme pressure and fanning the flame on the Ukraine issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in July.
Pope Francis claimed in June that World War III had already been declared and reiterated his claim that NATO may have triggered the crisis. He cited an unidentified world leader who told him that the alliance was “barking at the gates of Russia” and pushed back against criticism that he had failed to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin.
I am simply against turning a complex situation into a distinction between good guys and bad guys, without considering the roots and self-interests, which are very complex.
NATO isn’t just a casual association of states. As UK cabinet minister Sajid Javid noted in February, shortly before the Russian offensive started, an encroachment on one member is an encroachment on all. He even referred to the 30 member states as “NATO territory,” as if the bloc is one giant nation.
In terms of security, It may as well be one country. As Article 5 of the NATO treaty states, an armed attack on one member is considered an attack on all. That was a heavy responsibility when NATO started with 12 close allies. It has become a far more precarious pledge with expansion eastward. A dust-up in Skopje or Tallinn, even if justifiable, could have just as much potential to trigger a nuclear conflagration as an attack against Berlin or Paris.
And what if one of the little brothers is a bad actor, essentially provoking a fight that the big brothers are bound to finish? From Russia’s perspective, Ukraine would pose just such a risk. Putin has accused Kiev of committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in the Donbass, and Ukraine has failed to implement the Minsk agreements, the protocols brokered by Germany and France to bring peace to the region. Russia also has called for the “denazification” of Ukraine.
Moscow’s envoy to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, tried to explain Russia’s security concerns to a CBS News interviewer just four days before tanks rolled across Ukraine’s borders. Geopolitical rivals mustn’t trample the principle of “indivisible security,” meaning neither NATO nor Russia should be allowed to strengthen its own security at the expense of the other party, he said.
In that context, adding Ukraine to NATO would be “not possible for us to swallow,” Antonov said. His next comment made clear why such tactics aren’t in the interest of NATO member states, either:
You’ll see that there’s no space for us to retreat.
World War I was supposed to have taught politicians that hair-trigger alliances can bring unintended consequences, such as when the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo set off a global conflict that killed or maimed 40 million people. The resulting carnage was so devastating that it was supposed to be “the war to end all wars,” though tragically, rival blocs were going at it again – with even more deadly consequences – just 21 years later.
Songs of the war hawks
Cuba, an island nation of 7.5 million people known for sugar plantations, cigars and casinos before revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro overthrew US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, might have seemed like an obscure battleground to nearly bring Washington and Moscow to thermonuclear blows. However, given its proximity to the US, Castro’s seizing of American-owned assets and Washington’s Cold War “domino theory” on the spread of communism, it’s easy to see why the stakes were so high.
Castro, who went on to rule Cuba until 2008 and died in 2016, was arguably just the sort of little brother who could stir up conflict in his neighborhood. He allegedly ordered the shootdown of an American U-2 spy plane at the height of the October 1962 crisis, and even after Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed on a deal to end the conflict – including a US guarantee against invading Cuba and an unofficial promise to remove the Jupiter missiles in Turkey – the generalissimo demanded a nuclear first strike against Washington. Castro also refused to allow the verification measures that the US insisted upon to close the agreement, leading to humiliating inspections of Soviet ships at sea on their return voyages to take the missiles back home.
There were plenty of hawks on the US side, too. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who once acknowledged that he would have been tried as a war criminal if the US lost to Japan in World War II, wasn’t satisfied with Kennedy’s plan to blockade Cuba. He advised the commander-in-chief to deploy the US Navy and Strategic Air Command to surround the island nation and, if necessary, “fry it.” He considered it America’s “greatest defeat” when Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated a peaceful solution. As the peace deal was coming together, LeMay demanded an assault on Cuba the next day.
There were several incidents during the crisis that could have set off a devastating chain of events. At the time, the US Strategic Air Command was placed on DEFCON 2 status for the first time ever.
That’s why two US F-102 interceptor jets were armed with nuclear-tipped missiles when they flew out to escort a U-2 that had gone missing during a mission to collect air samples over the North Pole on October 27. The spy plane strayed into USSR airspace, which could have prompted a tragically panicked response.
Khrushchev later noted that the plane could have been mistaken for an American nuclear bomber, “which might push us to a fateful step.” And luckily, the Soviet MiGs that chased the U-2 over the Chukotka Peninsula turned back rather than provoking a conflict with the nuclear-armed F-102s as the spy plane re-entered US airspace.
That incident wasn’t even the scariest close call that day. As Plokhy recounted in his book, Soviet submarine commander Vasili Arkhipov likely prevented nuclear war during a hair-raising encounter with a US Navy convoy. Arkhipov was chief of staff for a group of four diesel-powered subs that had been sent to the region to help protect Soviet ships, and he was aboard one of them, the B-59.
The sub was operating in international waters of the Sargasso Sea when it was detected by US forces, which dropped non-lethal depth charges to try to force it to the surface. Aboard the sweltering B-59 with communications shut off, officers perceived that their vessel was under attack, perhaps at the start of World War III. The Soviet captain, Valentin Savitsky, ordered that the sub’s nuclear-armed torpedo be prepared to fire.
“We’ll hit them with everything we’ve got,” Savitsky reportedly said. “We’ll die, but we’ll sink them all. We won’t disgrace the fleet.”
Savitsky agreed to surface only after having his nuclear weapon readied in its tube. When a Navy plane dropped flares to get a better photo of the B-59, the Soviets again thought they were under attack, and the captain ordered an emergency dive. But before going back into the sub, Arkhipov looked back and saw a searchlight on the USS Cony signaling an apology. Savitsky and the political officer on board the B-59 agreed to a nuclear launch, but Arkhipov vetoed the decision.
An entire US Navy task force likely would have been destroyed by the 10-kiloton warhead, and Washington almost certainly have responded with a nuclear strike against the USSR. As Arthur Schlesinger, an advisor to Kennedy, later said of the Cuban crisis,
This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.
Fast-forward to today, and the increasingly aggressive involvement of the US and other NATO members in the Ukraine conflict threatens to create similarly dangerous moments – at least in the eyes of Russian leaders, whose country has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear shadow is rising again
In fact, Russia’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, told RT in a July interview that the US and the UK actually want to escalate the conflict into a larger confrontation between Moscow and European Union members.
NATO states are not only pumping more and increasingly advanced weapons into Ukraine, but they’re keeping Kiev from seeking a negotiated peace and forcing the impoverished country to use their firepower in riskier ways, Lavrov said. “Our American counterparts, British counterparts . . . with active support from Germans, the Polish and the Baltic states, they really want to turn this war into a real war and start a confrontation between Russia and European states.”
Some US Republican lawmakers have called the conflict a “proxy war.” In May, Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), openly framed the crisis that way in defending his support for a $40 billion Ukraine aid package. “Investing in the destruction of our adversary’s military, without losing a single American troop, strikes me as a good idea,” he said at the time.
That strategy has given rise to jokes that Washington and its allies are prepared to support Kiev as it fights Russian forces “to the last Ukrainian.” Doug Bandow, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan and now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has argued that Western powers “wantonly and recklessly ignored both Russian interests and consequent threats, leaving Ukrainians to pay the price.” He added that Western support for Kiev will stop at sanctioning Russia and providing weapons. “Equip Ukrainians to fight, sure. Help Ukrainians fight, forget it.”
However, as the Cuban crisis illustrated, shoving matches between superpowers can easily escalate, leading to unintended consequences. US President Joe Biden appeared to create a tripwire for such an escalation in March, when he vowed that Washington would respond if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine. Weeks later, members of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion alleged that they had been attacked with chemical weapons. The unsupported allegation led to a “scramble inside the White House” to match Biden’s rhetoric “while avoiding further escalation,” Politico reported in April.
Former Democrat presidential candidate and congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran, warned in July that Washington’s “proxy war” with Russia was putting the American people in danger. “President Biden himself says he has no idea when or how it’s going to end, but we know where this escalation leads,” Gabbard said in a Fox News interview.
“It leads us closer and closer to the brink of a nuclear war with Russia.”
Biden himself acknowledged the heightened risk this month. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he told an audience of Democrat donors. He warned that a catastrophic result would likely be unavoidable if Russia were to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
The escalations have only continued in recent weeks. With the US sending longer-range weaponry to Kiev and providing intelligence used to direct fire on Russian forces, Putin called for the mobilization of as many as 300,000 reserves troops and pointed out that he was prepared to use “all means” to defend the territorial integrity of Russian lands. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, replied that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia would be met with “catastrophic consequences.”
Antonov subsequently warned that there is no such thing as a limited nuclear conflict. American military planners “apparently hope that the US would be able to take cover behind the ocean if such a conflict happens in Europe with British and French nuclear weapons,” he said. “I would stress that this is an extremely dangerous experiment.” The ambassador suggested that the 60-year anniversary of the Cuban crisis is a good time to look at the foreign policy lessons of that episode, including the understanding that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
However, Western leaders have dismissed the security concerns that Russia raised in Ukraine, with Biden accusing Moscow of “genocide” and calling the offensive against Kiev an “unprovoked and unjustified attack.” Similarly, US leaders didn’t properly consider the ramifications of their policy of trying to overthrow Castro’s regime, according to Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara.
Reflecting on the crisis 40 years after it ended, McNamara conceded that Washington gave Castro and Khrushchev good reason to fear a US invasion of the island. “‘If I were in Cuban or Soviet shoes, I would have thought so, too,” he said at a conference in 2002. “We as a superpower did not look through to the ends of our actions. That was a real weakness.”
Antonov fears that a similar mistake is being made today. “I want to believe that, despite all the difficulties, we and the Americans have not yet approached a dangerous threshold of falling into the abyss of nuclear conflict,” he said. “It is important to stop threatening us.”
US Officials ‘obsessed’ With Wagner Group – Media
The CIA and State Department have reportedly tried to pressure African governments into kicking out the Russian contractors
The Biden administration has attempted to pressure African nations into expelling the Wagner private military company, with the firm’s presence in Sudan and Libya “at the top of every meeting” between American and Egyptian officials, the Associated Press reported.
CIA Director William Burns focused on the group during recent trips to Egypt and Libya, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed Wagner with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi during a jaunt to Cairo last month, the news agency reported on Saturday.
“Wagner obsesses [the American officials],” said an Egyptian senior government official. “It is at the top of every meeting.”
Egypt is a key conduit for American policy, with the Biden administration going as far as using Cairo to pass messages to Moscow, rather than communicating through direct channels. According to the report, the Egyptians reached out to their Sudanese and Libyan counterparts to relay Washington’s displeasure with Wagner.
Abbas Kamel, the director of Egypt’s Intelligence Directorate Agency, urged the head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, General Abdel-Fattah Burhan to address Wagner’s “use of Sudan as a base” for operations in Central Africa, a Sudanese official said. Burns himself visited Libya to speak to the country’s competing governments, discussing Wagner with Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar, the report claimed.
Egypt reportedly asked that Haftar not station Wagner soldiers near its borders, while the US demanded that Wagner fighters be removed from their posts safeguarding Libyan oil facilities.
Founded in 2014, Wagner has mainly operated as a security contractor in Africa and the Middle East. The precise details of its deployments are not made public, although Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has confirmed that his forces fought in Libya. He denied involvement in Sudan when asked by American journalists last year, saying at the time that he was “not aware of any evidence that the Wagner Group exists,” and that he had personally donated humanitarian aid to the conflict-stricken country.
“Who arranged wars and revolutions in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Mozambique, Central Africa, and so on?” he told RT last month. “Some of these countries later turned to the Wagner PMC, which put an end to these wars with an iron fist.”
The US declared the Wagner Group a “transnational criminal organization” last month, after Wagner forces notched up a series of victories against the Ukrainian military in Donbass.
Despite Washington’s apparent “obsession” with the group, “there is no evidence yet that the Biden administration’s pressure has yielded results in either Sudan or Libya,” the AP report noted.
Serbia Names ‘greatest’ Mistake by West
The decision to supply Kiev with battle tanks has only further united Russians, Aleksandar Vucic has said
The West’s recent announcement that it would be supplying Ukraine with main battle tanks marks a major miscalculation, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic said on Friday. That’s as Moscow has threatened to burn any Western equipment that enters Ukraine and has vowed to retaliate “far beyond the scope of armored vehicles.”
Vucic noted that the decision to supply Ukraine with tanks, especially with the “terrifying” German Leopard 2s, is the West’s “biggest” political mistake because it effectively manages to “unite the Russians like never before.”
Last month, Germany and the US agreed to provide a number of heavy tanks to Kiev. Washington has promised between 30 and 50 of its M1 Abrams tanks, while Berlin pledged 14 Leopard 2A6s from the Bunderswehr’s own stocks. An additional 51 of the same model and 88 of the older Leopard 1 model may also come from Rheinmetall as they get refurbished, Germany said.
Berlin also gave the green light to countries that have expressed a desire to export their own Leopards to Ukraine. Those include Poland, Finland, Spain, Norway and the Netherlands. The UK and Canada have also said they would be sending their heavy equipment to Kiev.
The decision has been heavily criticized by Russia, which has called it an “extremely dangerous” move that threatens to escalate the conflict in Ukraine. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the new threat of “German Leopard tanks with crosses on their hulls” to the Soviet Union’s struggle against Hitler’s forces and warned that Moscow’s response would not be limited to weapons.
Other countries have also voiced their concerns about the West’s move. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the delivery of NATO tanks to Ukraine was a “high-risk endeavor” that would fail to help end the conflict and only “line the pockets of gun barons.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also slammed Germany’s decision, noting that these Western countries are “drifting” towards becoming active participants in the conflict. Orban has insisted that instead of arming Kiev, the West should be pursuing “a ceasefire and peace talks” in Ukraine.
Moscow has repeatedly objected to Western weapon deliveries to Ukraine, arguing that non-stop arms shipments only serve to prolong the conflict and risk direct confrontation with NATO. The Kremlin has also insisted that no amount of military aid will prevent Moscow from reaching its objectives and warned that the tanks would “burn like the rest of Western weapons” supplied to Kiev.
Germany Approves Retired Tanks for Ukraine
Berlin has given German defense industry companies permission to export older Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine, the German media reported on Friday, citing government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit.
The official confirmed to journalists that a relevant export license was granted, without providing any further details.
“I do not want to say much more at the moment,” Hebestreit told journalists during a government press conference on Friday, according to Der Spiegel weekly. The official also said that further clarifications on the issue would be provided “within the coming days or weeks.”
Rheinmetall, one of Germany’s top arms manufacturers, suggested sending Leopard 1 tanks from its stocks to Ukraine as early as April 2022. At the time, the company stated it could supply up to 50 tanks to Ukraine within just six weeks if granted the government’s approval. The company also added that it was still checking on the condition of the tanks at the moment.
In mid-January, Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger told the tabloid Bild that it would take a long time to prepare the Leopard 1 tanks for potential export to Ukraine even if the company got a relevant license “tomorrow.” The tanks were “completely disassembled and built anew,” he said. According to Papperger, the delivery might take up to a year.
Der Spiegel reported on Friday that there were 29 Leopard 1 tanks largely ready for delivery, which were being stored by another defense manufacturer – the Flensburger Fahrzeugbau Gesellschaft (FFG). However, both Der Spiegel and SZ newspapers cited a lack of ammunition for the tanks in connection with the potential delivery.
Both Rheinmetall and FFG said they could potentially supply dozens of Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine, but only if Kiev was willing to buy them, SZ reported. Earlier, Rheinmetall said that overhauling the heavy equipment would cost hundreds of millions of euros – a cost it could not cover on its own.
Earlier, Berlin also vowed to send 14 modern Leopard 2 main battle tanks out of the army’s stockpiles to Ukraine. Moscow has repeatedly criticized the West for supplying weapons to Ukraine, arguing that they only served to prolong the conflict and human suffering.
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