With Russian troops moving closer to the Ukrainian border from multiple angles, the chance of war creeps higher by the day. Yet Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are still hinting at the possibility of a diplomatic solution, which would offer Putin a face-saving way out of the crisis he created.
The question is whether they can—and are willing to—devise a mutually palatable deal, given the dense tangle of conflicting interests driving this conflict. There is a way to cut the knot: Biden could borrow a move from John F. Kennedy’s playbook and offer Putin a secret deal.
Here is the current state of affairs. After Putin and Biden’s hour-long phone conversation on Saturday, the White House read-out made it seem nothing had changed; Biden, it said, warned once again of “swift and severe costs” if Russia invaded Ukraine. Period.
However, at a press conference in Moscow later in the day, Putin aide Yuri Ushakov revealed that much more was discussed. Biden, he said, recalled the long record of cooperation between the two countries, noted the many issues on which they still needed to cooperate, and offered several diplomatic compromises to the crisis (Ushakov did not detail what they were). Putin said he would think them over, but complained that the West was ignoring his fundamental demand—that Ukraine never join NATO. (A still-later background press briefing by a “senior administration official” confirmed Ushakov’s account.)
Biden, Putin, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have all taken maximalist positions on this issue: Biden says NATO’s open-door policy can’t be shut permanently on Ukraine; Putin says it must be; Zelensky keeps asking to join the U.S.-led military alliance. Any backing away from these positions would be seen as an act of weakness: U.S. credibility would be shot; Putin would lose what he sees as his last chance to restore Russia’s sphere of influence on its western border; Zelensky would be hounded by anti-Russia nationalists who view any compromise as treason.
Is there a face-saving way out? The classic case study in such matters is the 1962 Cuba missile crisis, though, even now, 60 years after the fact (and 35 years after all the documents and secret White House tapes have been declassified), few historians and almost no journalists fully understand how that crisis was resolved.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev covertly shipped nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba as an act of desperation. A year earlier, U.S. officials had declared that the “missile gap”—the intelligence agency’s estimate of overwhelming Soviet superiority in intercontinental ballistic missiles—was a myth. New reconnaissance satellites revealed that the Soviets had only four ICBMs; the U.S. was way ahead. Khrushchev had been propagating this myth, bragging that his factories were churning out missiles “like sausages.” Now, he knew that we knew it wasn’t so. He feared the U.S. was planning a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union, and now they knew he had nothing with which to retaliate. To close the gap, he sent medium-range missiles to Cuba.
But the shipment wasn’t covert enough. On Oct. 14, an American U-2 spy plane saw the first load of missiles being set up on the island. Two days later, President John F. Kennedy assembled his top advisers in the White House Cabinet Room. For the next 13 days, they met every day to discuss what to do. (Unbeknownst to the advisers, Kennedy tape-recorded these meetings. They are now available in the JFK Library, and transcripts have been published.)
At one point, on Oct. 18, Kennedy mulled what Khrushchev was up to. The Soviet leader must have known he couldn’t win; maybe he just needed a face-saving way to withdraw the missiles. Maybe, Kennedy proposed, we could tell Khrushchev, “If you begin to pull them out, we’ll take ours out of Turkey.” The U.S. had recently deployed medium-range nuclear missiles there, which could hit the southern part of the USSR. None of Kennedy’s advisers paid any attention to his remark.
Nine days later, after many knuckle-clenching moments, Khrushchev publicly proposed exactly that idea—he would take the missiles out of Cuba if we took ours out of Turkey. Instantly, Kennedy liked the idea. “To any man at the United Nations, any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade,” he said.
But all of his advisers—not just the generals, but civilian cabinet secretaries as well—attacked the idea as dangerous. “Keep the heat on!” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urged. “If we appear to be trading the defense of Turkey for the threat in Cuba, we will face a radical decline” in power. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy warned, his voice quivering with anger. Others predicted that the Turks would be humiliated, our credibility would be shot, and NATO would be finished. All of this, even though the missiles in Turkey were trivial—there were only 15 of them—and they would soon be replaced by Polaris submarines, which would be much more secure.
In the end, Kennedy instructed his brother, Robert Kennedy, the attorney general (who also opposed the missile trade), to go see Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and say we would take the trade—but only if it was kept secret. If the Soviets revealed he accepted the deal, it would be called off. Kennedy told just six of his advisers about his agreement. (He deeply feared the political consequences of compromising with the Kremlin.) To everyone else, and the rest of the world, he put out a cover story, claiming he’d rejected the missile trade but instead accepted a proposal that Khrushchev had put forth the night before: that he would remove his missiles if Kennedy promised never to invade the Communist island of Cuba.
The next day, Sunday, Oct. 29, Khrushchev announced he would remove the missiles, reciting the fictional cover story.
Remarkably, this deal was kept secret for a long time. Only in 1982, on the 20th anniversary of the crisis, when the existence of the tapes was about to be revealed, did McNamara, Bundy, and other advisers reveal the true story—or at least part of it. (They did not confess that they had all opposed the secret deal.)
If the deal had not been struck, U.S. air strikes were scheduled to begin two days later, on Monday, Oct. 30—500 conventional bombing raids per day, for five days, followed by a ground invasion of the island. Some of the Soviet missiles were already armed with nuclear warheads; they might have been launched in retaliation. And, though it wasn’t known at the time, the Soviets had secretly deployed 40,000 troops on Cuba to fend off a possible U.S. invasion. In other words, by taking Khrushchev’s deal, John Kennedy might have singlehandedly prevented World War III.
What does all this have to do with the Ukraine crisis of 2022? Putin has proposed a way out—keep Ukraine out of NATO—that everyone, in this case including Biden, is denouncing as unacceptable, even while admitting that Ukraine won’t be allowed into NATO for a long time, if ever.
The simplest solution would be for Biden to just take Putin’s deal—bar Ukraine from ever entering NATO. But there are three problems with that idea. First, it’s an impossible promise; even if Biden wanted to make it, there’s no way to shut out Ukraine forever. Second, U.S. influence in the world would tumble; every other ally would soon be looking for another protector. Even John Kennedy, back in 1962, knew that he couldn’t accept Khrushchev’s deal publicly. He had to make it in secret. (He even lied to his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. When he informed the former five-star general that the crisis was over, Eisenhower asked if he’d made a backroom deal. Kennedy said that he hadn’t.)
Would it be possible to keep such a pledge secret in today’s media-soaked environment? Back in 1962, Kennedy and his advisers met for 13 days in the Cabinet Room without any mention of the meetings being leaked to the press. That would be unthinkable now. But what about a secret deal with Putin, a man who has no problem with secrets?
Here is one way to do this—maybe. Biden could secretly send an emissary to see Putin. CIA Director William Burns would be a good choice; he has made low-profile trips Moscow before. Burns could bring along this assurance: Ukraine will not join NATO for as long as Biden is president; in practical terms, that is the most that any president could promise. However, he could add, if Putin makes this pledge public, the deal would be off—and, in fact, he could count on Ukraine joining the alliance next week.
In addition, Burns could go on, if Russia pulled its troops away from Ukraine, back to their original bases, Biden would do all the things he has proposed in recent talks, and take various confidence building measures to put U.S.-Russian relations on more stable footing.
Some possibilities: Re-open arms control treaties that President Trump abrogated. Open up all military exercises and missile deployments in the region to inspectors. Convene a conference on European security, to include consideration of Russian interests and concerns. Open negotiations to settle ambiguities in the Minsk Agreements, the ceasefire accord that Russia and Ukraine signed in 2015 but have never implemented because of differing interpretations. Senior U.S. and Russian officials have mentioned the revival of Minsk as a way out of the crisis. It is now time to test the proposition.
Finally, in exchange for some sort of security assurances and vast economic assistance, Zelensky would have to agree to stop requesting membership in NATO. This, too, would have to be kept secret, to keep Zelensky from getting pushed out of power by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists.
Meanwhile, Putin could tell the world, “See, as I’ve been saying, I was just conducting military exercises.” He would be able to take satisfaction that his security concerns were being addressed, and maybe even be hailed (with muffled sneers) as a man of peace.
Is any of this possible? I don’t know. Much of it depends on Putin’s intentions. If he just wants to settle the Ukrainian question by force in the next few days or weeks, then no deal Biden might offer would be good enough. If he is looking for a face-saving way out, a secret deal like this might be the only way.