Sixty years ago today (October 28) the U.S. and Russia stepped back from the brink of nuclear war by making a deal. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would yield to President John F. Kennedy’s demand that Soviet missiles be removed from Cuba; Kennedy pledged not to invade. There is an instructive analogy with Ukraine today.
Soviet documents that were revealed after the USSR imploded show how this all went down – and how we all would have "gone down," literally, were it not for the statesmanlike behavior of both leaders and their acute realization of the stakes involved.
Some of what I include below is drawn from a book by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali that is based on those documents. They called it One Hell of a Gamble: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book is one hell of a book. US officials now dealing with the war in Ukraine would profit immensely by reading chapters 12 to 14.
On October 28, 1962, Khrushchev wrote Kennedy:
"I thank you for the sense of proportion you have displayed. … The Soviet Government has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you describe as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union."
And so, we all got to live another 60 years – so far. The authors of One Hell of a Gamble, called particular attention to one exceedingly important fact; namely, that most of Khrushchev’s advisers had had personal experience of war – WWII, which left 26,000,000 Soviets dead. Neither Joe Biden (5 deferments during Vietnam), national security adviser Jake Sullivan, nor Secretary of State Antony Blinken have had such experience.
Medium-Range Nuclear Ballistic Missiles (MRBM)
In 1962, MRBMs already deployed in Cuba that could hit Washington, DC, and Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha was the most urgent threat. With their short launch-to-target time (mere minutes) they threatened to upset the strategic balance and present an existential threat to the US.
Fursenko and Timothy Naftali note that unbeknown to the White House until 11 days later:
“The first shipment of nuclear warheads, on the Soviet freighter Indigirka, reached Mariel, Cuba on October 4, 1962. On board were 45 one-megaton warheads for the R-12s [MRBMs], twelve 2-kiloton warheads for the Luna [short-range] tactical weapons, six 12-kiloton bombs for the IL-28 bombers and thirty-six 12-kiloton warheads for the cruise missiles [to defend Cuban shores]. In sum, the ship carried the equivalent of roughly 45,500 kilotons of TNT, over twenty times the explosive power that was dropped by Allied bombers on Germany in all of the Second World War.”
On the evening of October 15, the day after a US U-2 reconnaissance mission over Cuba detected this ominous shipment, President Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy was briefed on the photos, which included two 70-foot-long MRBMs at San Cristobal. Bundy briefed the President the next morning; the crisis was on.
Clearly, Kennedy had been provoked and later he made that abundantly clear to Khrushchev. Kennedy’s aggressive reactions were of dubious legality. But no one, no one said those actions were "unprovoked." The provoker, of course, was Khrushchev. Sending missiles to Cuba was a gambit; he thought he could get away with it; he misjudged; he folded.
For Khrushchev there was no existential threat in withdrawing the missiles – merely political embarrassment. He and Kennedy exchanged messages. Persuaded that the gambit had failed, and unwilling to risk a nuclear exchange, Khrushchev withdrew the missiles. To help Khrushchev save face, Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba.
U.S. Missiles in Turkey: A Private Deal
Khrushchev’s public letter, in which he agreed to dismantle and withdraw the missiles from Cuba, was aired on Radio Moscow on October 28. He also sent a private message to Kennedy, referring to the discussion Robert Kennedy had with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin the evening before. RFK told the ambassador that the President considered Khrushchev’s order to withdraw the missiles in return for a U.S. commitment not to invade a suitable way to resolve the affair.
As anticipated, Dobrynin raised the possible withdrawal of US missiles in Turkey, and RFK answered: "If that is the only obstacle to achieving a resolution … then the president doesn’t see any insurmountable difficulties in resolving this issue" (Fursenko and Naftali). RFK told Dobrynin that, due to NATO sensitivities, the US would need four or five months to remove the missile bases from Turkey and that Moscow would have to avoid announcing this publicly.
In his private letter of Oct. 28 to Kennedy, Khrushchev pointed out that he had acquiesced in the president’s wish that the understanding on Turkey not be made public, but added that the concessions made in his public letter were given "on account of your having agreed on the Turkish issue" – meaning RFK’s assurance to Dobrynin.
In his book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, who was an active participant from the Pentagon side, describes the RFK/Dobrynin understanding as a "private deal" with Moscow obligated not to reveal it. Ellsberg writes that RFK even rejected a proposal by Dobrynin that the oral understanding be confirmed in writing, and opines that, in any case, the promise would have had no effect on Khrushchev’s basic decision to withdraw the missiles. (As for the missiles in Turkey, the US did meticulously withdraw them, as promised.)
"Khrushchev had backed off; he had not only accepted the blockade but also removed his missiles, under threat of attack and without any compensating concession from JFK (except what I and most Americans assumed to be a meaningless promise not to invade Cuba)."
How is Ukraine Like Cuba?
Short answer: President Putin is convinced he may soon face the same kind of MRBM-type threat as President Kennedy faced 60 years ago. I know of no knowledgeable Russian expert who expects Putin to relent on Ukraine. (Surely there is no hint of this in his acrid speech yesterday at Valdai.) And I know of no serious military analyst who thinks – short of nuclear war – that the present government in Kyiv can "win," in any meaningful sense, on the ground.
It is worth spending 10 minutes watching this video in which Putin lays out in some detail his concerns over the possible emplacement of medium-range nuclear missiles on Russia’s periphery, giving him mere minutes to decide whether to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
Writing in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, former MIT Professor and Pentagon adviser Ted Postol noted that Western media dismiss Russia’s claim that U.S. "ABM" installations like the ones in Romania and Poland have an offensive capability as rhetorical obfuscation. Postol warns:
"If the missile systems in Romania and Poland were supplied with US cruise or hypersonic missiles and placed on Russia’s frontier, they would become fearsome offensive forces. Russian planners would have to assume that the missiles were loaded with nuclear warheads."
Putin and Biden Discuss MRBMS
In a video call between Biden and Putin on December 7, 2021,Putin told the US president that "Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable, legally fixed guarantees that rule out NATO expansion eastward and the deployment of offensive strike weapons systems in states adjacent to Russia." [Emphasis added.]
No such guarantee was provided at the time.
At the very end of December 2021, the Kremlin said Putin needed to talk with Biden right away. Below is an excerpt from the Russian readout (followed by the readout from the next time the two talked). Would Putin have reason to believe that Biden was overruled and persuaded not to honor his undertaking of Dec. 30 on this key issue?
- “Joseph Biden emphasized … that Washington had no intention of deploying offensive strike weapons in Ukraine.” Senior Putin adviser, Yuri Ushakov, pointed out approvingly that this was also one of Moscow’s chief goals in proposing security guarantees to the US and NATO. [Emphasis added.]
- Feb. 12, 2022, Ushakov laments results of a "follow-up" Putin-Biden call: explains that Biden did not address non-expansion of NATO, or non-deployment of strike weapons systems on Ukrainian territory … "To these items, we have received no meaningful response." [Emphasis added.].
In sum, MRBMS are a very large fly in the ointment. At this point, Biden’s promise of Dec. 30 matters little (save what it has done to mutual trust).
There will be no MRBM sites in Ukraine near the border with Russia. What eventually happens to the "ABM" installations in Romania and in Poland that can accommodate MRBMs is anyone’s guess. Given Russian sensitivities, however, at this point it would seem foolhardy to insert what the Russians call "offensive strike weapons" there.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).