The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Con–Sonar: Crazy Ivan!


July 24, 2008

Yesterday I was running a short simulation exercise on the Cuban Missile Crisis for students in my summer program, and lo and behold, what appeared in the paper, but:

Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons could be deployed to Cuba in response to U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, a Russian newspaper reported Monday, citing an unnamed senior Russian air force official.

The report in Izvestia, which could not be confirmed, prompted memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war after Nikita Khrushchev put nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island. The weapons were eventually withdrawn in an apparent Soviet climb-down, but President John F. Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

Joke? One wishes:

Some Russian experts dismissed the possibility of a new Cuban crisis. “It’s very silly psychological warfare,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, in a telephone interview. “Putin and Medvedev are very militant in words but very cautious in practical issues. They have not taken any step that can be seen as a real threat to the West, and I cannot see any reason to raise this threat against the U.S.”

But “if it’s true, it looks like a repetition of the Caribbean crisis” he said, using the common Russian term for the Cuban missile crisis.

Interesting here, I think, is the return to the commonplace of the Crisis as a turning point in superpower relations. Russia, in invoking the crisis seems to be signaling that they are, shall we say, upset, with the Bush missile defense project.

Putin has in the past invoked the Cuban missile crisis to register opposition to the missile defense project, saying it could touch off brinksmanship as dangerous as in 1962.

Now, it would take a great deal to bring the world anywhere near as close as it was to nuclear Armageddon in 1962 (and, as the recent studies of the crisis show, we were a hell of a lot closer to nuclear war than most actually appreciate, and that should rightly be scary). But, I think one lesson of the crisis is worth remembering.

At the time of the crisis, the USSR had something on the order of 4 working ICBMs (the actual missile gap), and despite a substantial manpower advantage in the European theater it had a decided disadvantage strategically (in nuclear weapons) vs. the USA. The decided not to face the US from a position of weakness again, and sought strategic parity. Thus began the Soviet military build-up that would eventually bankrupt the country. However, it was successful. By the early 1970’s the US and USSR essentially reached nuclear parity (leading to ABM and SALT and the like).

Today, under the Wolfowitz defense guidance (now called the national security strategy of the USA), the US uses its position of global preeminence to achieve policy victories. However, in good realist fashion, such stark and humiliating demonstrations and assertions of power lead to balancing (no!– yes, it is true).

So, while it reeks of historical symbolism that is borderline laughable in its actual implementation given today’s Russian military, it is perhaps a signal that merits a bit more attention.

(or maybe the Russians are just bitter, who knows these days…)

PS: speaking of the Cold War— the Soviets is everywhere these days. I’m watching the Hunt for Red October on AMC as I type this. I love this movie… Also, that should explain the post title, if you’ve made it this far.)

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.