Just in time for its 60th anniversary, the Cuban missile crisis is trending big time.
President Biden warned last week that Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine portends “the prospect of Armageddon” like no time “since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.” And just as President John F. Kennedy coaxed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with a face-saving deal to pull his missiles out of Cuba in October 1962, Biden wondered what kind of deal might sway Putin to withdraw his troops from Ukraine now. “We are trying to figure out,” he said. “What is Putin’s off ramp?”
Countless analysts, reporters, and commentators have drawn the same comparisons—both in describing the ominous risks and in pondering a diplomatic way out. It is a useful practice to consult the annals of history, but it can also be misleading. Seemingly similar crises may, in fact, be so different as to offer no real lessons at all. There’s an old saying: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” True, but sometimes it doesn’t rhyme either. To put the point concretely: The war in Ukraine right now is very different from the 1962 crisis in Cuba, and ideas for ending the war peacefully must be very different too. And in fact, there might not even be any good ones.
Let us briefly recap the course of the Cuban missile crisis. In October 1962, U2 spy planes spotted Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles being installed in Cuba. Kennedy mounted a naval blockade of the island and threatened to destroy the missiles. An increasingly tense standoff lasted 13 days. Then Khrushchev offered to remove his missiles from Cuba if Kennedy removed very similar U.S. missiles from Turkey. Against the counsel of all his advisers, Kennedy accepted the deal—but only if the American side of the trade was kept secret. (It stayed secret for 20 years.)
In early February 2022, during the buildup to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden and his top aides—thinking back explicitly on Kennedy’s deal with Khrushchev—tried to come up with a face-saving way for Putin to back off. Putin had expressed concerns that Ukraine would soon join NATO, so Biden’s emissaries pledged that this would not happen if Putin backed away. They also offered to discuss any other security concerns that Putin might have about the Kyiv government’s leanings toward the West.
So there’s the first difference between Cuba 1962 and Ukraine 2022. Khrushchev was looking for a way out; once the U.S. detected that he was installing missiles, he knew that he would have to give in. By contrast, it now seems plain, in retrospect, that Putin had no interest—and still has no interest—in backing down.
In fact, as the war escalated, so did his ambitions. When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that he had “cooled” his demand to join NATO, Putin simply upped the stakes, first accusing Ukraine of committing “genocide” in its eastern provinces, then denouncing Zelensky’s government as “Nazi,” and finally denying Ukraine’s sovereignty, annexing the areas already occupied by Russian troops, with an eye toward pulling the entire country—along with the entire Russian empire of old—under Moscow’s rule.
There’s not much room here for face-saving compromises.
The second, more obvious difference is that the guns hadn’t started firing yet in Cuba 1962, with two exceptions. On the last day of the crisis, an American U2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba (an action that no Soviet officer authorized). Earlier on, a U.S. ship dropped an anti-submarine depth charge, which a Soviet submarine commander took as an attack, prompting him to order the launching of a nuclear torpedo (an order that his underlings disobeyed). This is one eternal lesson of October 1962: The U.S. and the USSR came closest to war in that crisis when accidents occurred or when overly excited bit-players misinterpreted what they saw. It’s important for commanders to maintain absolute control; it’s our luck that the top commanders at the time, Kennedy and Khrushchev, wanted to avoid a war.
The key thing is, their mission—the measure of their success—was to keep war from breaking out. In many ways, that’s easier than the task facing Biden, Zelensky, and the NATO allies—to stop it or to win it, without triggering a bigger war still.
Kennedy and Khrushchev were so stunned by how close they came to Armageddon that, in the months after the crisis ended, they took steps toward ending the Cold War—setting up a hot line, negotiating a limited nuclear test-ban treaty, and preparing several other disarmament forums. This precursor to détente faded in November 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, and came to a halt in October 1964, when Khrushchev was deposed by hardline hawks.
Finally, Khrushchev went into the Cuban venture from a position of desperate weakness. For the previous few years, he had pretended that the Soviet Union was churning out intercontinental ballistic missiles “like sausages.” U.S. Air Force intelligence officers abetted this myth, knowing that the more missiles the Soviets seemed to have, the more missiles the Air Force could build in response. But by the spring of 1961, thanks to photos taken from new spy satellites, Kennedy knew that the Soviets had only a handful of ICBMs.
Khrushchev feared that the U.S. was planning a nuclear first strike; now he knew that the Americans knew that, if that happened, he wouldn’t be able to retaliate. He rushed to install some medium-range missiles in Cuba, as a gap-filler, so that the USSR could still respond to—and thus deter—an American strike. (A medium-range missile launched from Cuba would hit the same targets as an ICBM launched from Russia.)
As it’s turned out, Putin went into Ukraine with a weaker hand than he or anyone else thought he had—but, at the time, Putin thought he was going in with strength. He figured, for reasons still unclear, that Kyiv would topple in a matter of days, that most Ukrainians would greet the Russian troops as liberators, and that the West—which seemed divided, which hadn’t done much when he annexed Crimea, and some parts of which were dependent on Russian oil and gas—wouldn’t do anything in response. He miscalculated on all fronts.
In short, Khrushchev knew he would have to back down almost from the moment the crisis began; he had some time to pave the path. For Putin to back down at this point, he would have to admit the mistake—and take a much bigger fall.
The Armageddon scenarios assume that the Russian army, already routed by multipronged Ukrainian offenses, are further pummeled to the point of near-defeat—and that a desperate Putin fires off a low-yield nuclear weapon or two, with the idea of shocking Ukraine’s Western allies to the negotiating tables, in order to stave off further escalation. Putin believes that the U.S. and NATO would not risk all-our nuclear war for the sake of saving Ukraine. He’s right about that, but he’s not necessarily right to infer that we’d bring the war to a crashing halt. We might keep fighting; the Ukrainians certainly would do so. More nukes might fly. That is why Biden said—in part as a warning, in part as a matter of fact—that a “limited nuclear war” might not stay limited. That’s simply the nature of the beast.
This is why some—even those completely on Ukraine’s side in this war—are seeking an exit ramp for Putin. But is there one? Reports are that he would think about a cease-fire that kept all forces in place, acknowledged Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions, and pledged Ukraine’s neutrality in the east-west standoff. But this amounts to Ukraine’s surrender—and hardly assures that a ceasefire would be lasting. Any real, negotiated ceasefire would have to start with the total withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. At that point, there might be talks about Ukraine’s standing in Europe or truly free and fair referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea—but not before then. That being the case, the sighting of an exit ramp seems unlikely. The lessons of the Cuban missile crisis are more fitting for a Russian leader who realizes his mistake and wants peace.