This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Just 90 miles from the American mainland, the attempt by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to place missiles on the island represented a fundamental threat to US security. He was responding to the US placement of Jupiter nuclear missiles in Turkey, which was seen as a fundamental threat to Soviet security.
Today, Russian forces on Ukraine’s border are responding to what the Kremlin sees as a similar existential menace. In both cases, genuine concerns have been mixed with posturing and ill-advised escalation. We find ourselves in a new Cold War and a slow-motion escalation comparable to the Cuban missile crisis.
Then, the threat of global annihilation forced the two sides into adroit diplomacy which allowed both sides to retreat with dignity. The Soviet Union removed its missiles, Washington promised not to invade Cuba and a few months later discreetly removed the Jupiter missiles. A hotline was installed between Moscow and Washington and a complex arms control architecture was put in place. The alternative was world-ending catastrophe.
In Ukraine, those now seeking a diplomatic resolution are looking for some sort of equivalent formula, but it is far from certain that it can be found. A ‘march of folly’, the grim posturing and perverse motivations that led to the first world war, is by far the greatest risk. How did we get here? As I wrote earlier this week, the root cause is the failure after the end of the first Cold War to build an equitable and inclusive peace order in Europe. The fundamental premise of Gorbachev’s détente with Reagan was that the European security would be transformed — and the USSR would be included.
Instead, Russian attempts to help create a ‘common European home’ were met with an expanding Atlanticist sphere. America and Europe bound themselves closer together, and the definition of what counted as ‘Europe’ was pushed from the old Iron Curtain up to the eastern edge of the Baltics. Nato enlargement was opposed by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, and ultimately by Vladimir Putin (once his feelers about Russia joining were firmly rebuffed). Promises to Russia by multiple western leaders that Nato would not expand beyond a united Germany — confirmed in National Security Archive documents published in 2017 — were broken.
Enlargement rather than transformation of the old security system became the order of the day, accompanied by what was perceived to be Nato militarism in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the destruction of Libya in 2011, quite apart from the nobly conceived but poorly conducted campaign in Afghanistan. What were those outside of the Atlanticist aegis to make of these muscular intrusions around the globe?
In February 2014 a US-backed neo-nationalist and virulently anti-Russia government came to power in Kiev, raising the security stakes immeasurably. State Department documents from the preceding years, published by WikiLeaks in 2011, show the US ambassador in Kiev insisting that Ukraine wanted Nato. The idea was fanciful: there is no single desire among the Ukrainian people for either the West or Russia. Even today, after the seizure of Crimea and the slow burn civil war in the eastern region of Donbas, 30 to 40 per cent of Ukrainians support closer relations with Moscow.
International policy within this cleft nation has been held hostage by a radicalised and highly mobilised minority. They agitate for a form of western liberalism that sees itself as the inheritor of manifest destiny, spreading its ideals to the four corners of the globe. Moral progress means the expansion of the empire of liberty — and therefore American alignment — even if that means the diminution of genuine plurality. The Atlantic power system, and particularly the European Union, the supposed defender of European pluralism, is reneging on its own purported principles. If such absolutist precepts had been asserted in 1962, then the Cuban crisis would have ended disastrously.
This is what Russia was reacting against when it annexed Crimea in 2014. The loss of the Sevastopol naval base to western-aligned forces would have represented the greatest defeat for the Kremlin in a thousand years. The response broke international law, but Moscow felt it had no choice. None of this is to say that Russia has behaved appropriately on the international stage. Instead, the point is that there was a chance for a reset — to bring a willing Moscow into the fold. It was rebuffed, and the Kremlin acted in kind.
Khrushchev’s missile diplomacy in 1962 was rash and foolhardy and contributed to his ousting two years later. Russia’s sabre-rattling today may well be considered ill-advised, but it is in keeping with Putin’s (and before him Yeltsin’s) concerns that the unmediated advance of an alliance system to Russia’s borders represents a threat of the highest order. Nato is supposed to be a collective defence body, but its post-Cold War track record does not inspire confidence that this is always the case.
If we are in a second Cold War, then we need to manage it as effectively as we did the first. This means ensuring that diplomacy takes priority over the demonisation of the opponent and avoiding the assertion of non-negotiable positions. In truth, neither the Russians nor the Ukrainian population wants an escalation. As Owen Matthews writes in The Spectator this week, the Kremlin has made no attempts to ready its population for the inevitable death toll that would come with invasion. It is the West that is whipping itself into a war frenzy. Instead, western powers should recognise that neutrality — not Nato membership, as was promised to Ukraine in 2008 — is the only feasible option for a divided Ukrainian people.
Neutral states such as Austria, Ireland and Finland have thrived in such a framework, with total domestic sovereignty and autonomy. A free and prosperous Ukraine, united in its neutrality, should be the common objective. But for that, the unfinished business at the end of the first Cold War needs to be resolved.