Not since the Cuban missile crisis exactly 60 years ago has the world been in such danger.
And that’s not just my own view: early in October, US President Joe Biden said that the risk of nuclear Armageddon is at the highest level since the Cuban missile crisis. He was right.
As I write, Russia’s conventional military forces are being forced to retreat on many fronts and Ukrainian forces have destroyed a key bridge linking Russia to Crimea. Russian conventional weapons are proving no match for the weapons supplied to Ukraine by the US and other NATO allies. Russia is having to field relatively inexperienced troops following an unpopular conscription.
But Russian president Putin no doubt believes he cannot afford to lose in Ukraine. Like every Russian school boy, he knows that it was across the Ukrainian plains that Russia has repeatedly been attacked – most notably by Napoleon and his forces, and more recently by Hitler and his army. He will be acutely conscious of the 14 million Russians who died as a direct result of Hitler’s invasion, to say nothing of the millions more who died as a result of famine and disease – numbers which dwarf the 400,000 Americans who died in the Second World War.
Putin will not have forgotten either that early in 1990 US Secretary of State James Baker assured the Soviet Union that “NATO would not expand one inch to the east”, and it was on the basis of that commitment that the Soviet Union agreed to support the independence of Eastern Europe.
And of course, since that commitment, NATO has moved steadily to the east to the point where only Ukraine stands between NATO countries and Russia. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year, there was discussion about whether an invasion might be averted if Ukraine agreed never to join NATO. That was ruled out of the question.
So here we are, eight months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Ukraine is openly seeking NATO membership. Indeed, Ukraine applied to integrate with a NATO Membership Action Plan as early as 2008. Plans for NATO membership were shelved by Ukraine following the 2010 presidential election in which Viktor Yanukovych was elected president – he preferred to keep the country non-aligned. In 2014, the government in Kyiv changed again and became more openly pro-Europe, some say as a result of a coup instigated by the American CIA.
So there cannot be the slightest doubt that Russia feels threatened by the prospect of having NATO forces on their very door-step.
And no doubt Putin feels personally threatened. As Russian casualties mount, and more and more men are forced into uniform, he must be becoming more and more unpopular. Media reports suggest that he is being urged by some of his key advisers to use some of his very large stock-pile of tactical nuclear weapons to turn the tide of war. And if he were to do that, the US has already threatened a “catastrophic” response.
President Biden has commented that he doesn’t think “there is any such a thing as the ability to easily use a tactical [nuclear] weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
In some ways, the situation is even more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis. Shortly before that crisis in October 1962, President Kennedy had read a book entitled “The Guns of August”, about the start of the First World War. The thesis of the book was that, after the Archduke Ferdinand had been shot in Sarajevo, none of the leaders of Europe had the ability to stop the move to war because of the inter-locking alliances which characterized the European continent at that time. Kennedy feared that as events unfolded perhaps neither he nor Khrushchev would have the ability to stop World War III.
We now know from a book which Bobby Kennedy wrote subsequently, called “The Missiles of October”, that the President ordered all US reconnaissance aircraft out of the air except over Cuba to reduce the risk that the Soviet Union might mistake a reconnaisance aircraft for a bomber; and instructed that US nuclear weapons be disarmed and not rearmed without his explicit authority, to reduce the risk of a nervous operator pushing the “Fire” button if he mistook a flock of geese for a Soviet attack on his radar screen.
More importantly, the President authorized his brother to negotiate secretly with the Soviet Union through its Washington embassy. As a result, the US agreed to remove its nuclear-armed missiles from Turkey on condition that the Soviet Union remove its nuclear-armed missiles from Cuba.
Might a similar deal be made in the current situation? In a real sense, Ukraine is to Russia what Cuba was to the US. The US was not willing to tolerate a strategic competitor placing nuclear-armed missiles close to its border, and was willing to risk Armageddon to make sure that didn’t happen. Russia seems willing to use nuclear weapons – though “only” tactical nuclear weapons at this stage – to ensure that NATO is not on its border. The distance between Moscow and the Ukrainian border is less than 500 kilometres; the distance between Cuba and Florida is just over 700 kilometres.
The stakes could hardly be higher, and it is not obvious what Russia could offer to persuade the US and NATO to “back off”. What is the equivalent of the US missiles in Turkey which Russia might offer in exchange for NATO guaranteeing Ukraine’s neutrality?
Logically, Putin would be mad to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but when political leaders are under enough personal and political pressure, they sometimes behave irrationally.
Long after the Cuban missile crisis, Robert McNamara (who had been US Secretary of Defense at the time of the crisis) visited Cuba. According to the documentary “The Fog of War”, he met with Fidel Castro, the president of Cuba. Illustrating how irrational political leaders can become under enough pressure, he asked Castro whether there had been nuclear weapons in Cuba at the time of the crisis; if there were, whether he would have advocated their use; and if they had been used, what did Castro think would have been the result.
According to McNamara, Castro confirmed that there were nuclear weapons in Cuba at the time of the crisis. And that he had in fact recommended that they be used, even while recognizing that Cuba would have been wiped out had that happened.
Meanwhile on the other side of the planet, the US seems determined to make China an enemy. Perhaps hostility between the two Powers is inevitable: the two countries have radically different political structures and dominant super-Powers never like being challenged by newcomers.
But unless China’s economic trajectory changes radically – and of course it might, given their severe property market troubles, persistent attempts to eliminate a virus which seems to defy elimination, and aging population – it is only a matter of a short time before China’s economy becomes markedly larger than that of the US. Already, using a so-called purchasing-power parity exchange rate, China’s economy is closely similar in size to the American. And ever since President Trump embarked on a trade war with China, and additionally tried to inhibit the growth of Huawei, one of China’s leading technology companies, the US has seemed determined to thwart China’s growth.
Just last month, the Biden administration announced sweeping new limits on the sale of semiconductor technology to China. The New York Times quoted technology experts as saying that the new rules impose the broadest export controls issued in a decade. Whereas the Trump administration had targeted Huawei, the new rules appear to establish a more comprehensive policy that will stop technology exports to a range of Chinese technology companies and cut off China’s nascent ability to produce advanced chips itself.
It is hard to avoid comparisons with the American reaction to the rise of Japan in the late thirties – increasingly stringent trade restrictions from about 1938, culminating in an embargo on oil shipments in the middle of 1941. With Japan very heavily dependent on oil imports from the US, it is not in the least surprising that war between the US and Japan was the result.
We live in exceedingly dangerous times.
This article was first published in Elocal