The US Response to Russia: Cuban Missile Crisis and Historical Parallels

In December, Russia sent the US a proposal on mutual security guarantees and a request for immediate negotiations. A set of unique factors, including the leverage of troops on the Ukrainian border and China’s very public support of Russia, led to the unprecedented result that the US complied and responded to Russia. That response was supposed to be secret, but it was leaked to the media, providing us with an unintended glimpse into US negotiations with Russia.

The intended secrecy is understandable. The US seems to be willing to give Russia significantly more than the aggressive posturing had suggested. The veil was meant to save face.

At a quick glance, the US response seems to deny Russia the demand it wants most. Putin had demanded assurances that NATO would not expand into Ukraine. The American response, however, reiterates that "The United States continues to firmly support NATO’s Open Door Policy."

Putin knows, though, that the US won’t give that assurance; he also knows that they likely don’t need to. Though Putin would like to get the assurance in writing, correcting the broken promise that followed from Gorbachev’s failure to get the same promise in writing, he has three reasons to believe that Ukrainian ascension to NATO is, at least, a long way off. First, NATO has no desire to absorb the problems Ukraine would bring. Second, it would be very hard to get the necessary unanimity required for NATO members to invite Ukraine in. And third, as Putin knows, the US has already informed Ukraine that NATO membership is unlikely for at least the next decade. In response to a question during a January 19 press conference, Biden said, for Russia to hear, "the likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely, based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy and a few other things going on there, and whether or not the major allies in the West would vote to bring Ukraine in right now."

There is actually the potential for the tiniest hint in the US response that the US is willing to take discussions on NATO expansion a little further. In a cryptic line the US response says that "We are also prepared for a discussion of the indivisibility of security – and our respective interpretations of that concept." It goes on to say that this concept has to be seen in context "and cannot be viewed in isolation." But what does that mean? Anatol Lieven says that that is "a phrase used by Russia in its opposition to NATO expansion." When I asked Lieven what the US statement implies in the context of the response to Russia’s security demands, he told me that "it potentially opens a very small chance of creating (at least in the long term) a wider format in which Russia would genuinely have a say in European security."

So, the refusal to close the NATO door on Ukraine may be a formality, at least in the short run. But Putin may have gotten concessions on something more tangible. Though it is NATO’s expansion east to Ukraine that has attracted the most attention, Putin has a second demand regarding the placement of bases, troops and weapons in Ukraine and other former Soviet states that are still not NATO members. Though much less discussed, it is actually that second demand that has more concerned Putin. Richard Sakwa says that, decades ago, “NATO enlargement was the enduring divisive issue, but it was BMD [Ballistic Missile Defense] that Russia considered the greatest strategic threat.”

Similarly now, former Chief of the CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch Ray McGovern told me in a personal correspondence that, even more than NATO pushing its expansion into Ukraine, what is more concerning to Putin is NATO’s plan to put antiballistic missiles within range of Europe. After all, what difference does it make if Ukraine is prevented from being a NATO member it its territory is still used to base US troops and as a launching ground for NATO missiles? In a recent press conference, Putin said, "Today we see where NATO is: in Poland, in Romania and in the Baltic states. They said one thing but did another." Then he clearly stated his concern: "Then later the United States walked out on the ABM Treaty. . . . Now anti-ballistic missile launchers are deployed in Romania and are being set up in Poland. They will probably be there soon if they are not yet built. These are MK-41 launchers that can launch Tomahawks. In other words, they are no longer just counter-missiles, and these assault weapons can cover thousands of kilometers of our territory. Isn’t this a threat to us?"

Here, on Putin’s second demand, the US seems to have given ground and made concessions to Russia both on weapons and troops in Ukraine. The US response says, "The United States is willing to discuss conditions-based reciprocal transparency measures and reciprocal commitments by both the United States and Russia to refrain from deploying offensive ground-launched missile systems and permanent forces with a combat mission in the territory of Ukraine." It further states that the US "is prepared to begin discussions . . . on arms control for ground-based intermediate and shorter-range missiles and their launchers." The next point that Putin can accept is that the US "is prepared to discuss . . .a transparency mechanism to confirm the absence of Tomahawk cruise missiles . . . in Romania and Poland." That’s troops, missiles and nuclear weapons. These seem to be concessions that are important to Putin and that he was trying to get.

The US concessions and the events surrounding them seem to bear a striking historical resemblance to the Cuban missile crisis. In both cases, Russian actions that were presented as aggressive were, in truth, defensive responses to threatening US activity. Today, Russia’s massing of troops near the Ukrainian border has more to do with Russia’s fears of US and NATO encroachment and aggression on their borders and US troops and weapons in Ukraine than it does with a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Similarly, in 1962, Russia and Cuba feared an American invasion of Cuba. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev wrote, "one thought kept hammering away at my brain: what will happen if we lose Cuba?" It was only then that he "had the idea of installing missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba. . . ."

The fear was not the product of paranoia. According to Daniel Ellsberg, the US was provocatively blockading Cuba, forcing Soviet submarines to surface and flying reconnaissance flights over Cuba. But, most importantly, there were full preparations for airstrikes and an invasion of Cuba. Castro and Khrushchev were right.

Operation Mongoose was an interagency operation that received the highest priority in the Kennedy government. It was run by the CIA’s Edward Lansdale, and its explicit goal was the overthrow of Castro. When Lansdale drew up the timetable for the regime change to take place in October 1962, he said that “final success will require decisive US military intervention”. America was planning to invade Cuba. It was in response to that plan that Russia put missiles in Cuba.

If the current negotiations succeed, it will because the US agreed to remove or refrain from placing troops and missiles in Ukraine and near Russia. The US is willing, they have now told Russia, to discuss not placing missiles and troops in Ukraine. They are willing to discuss arms controls on short range and intermediate range missiles. And they are willing to discuss the removal of potentially nuclear cruise missiles in Romania and Poland.

Similarly, contrary to the story proffered to the public, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved, not when Kennedy coldly stared down Khrushchev and forced him to back down, but when Kennedy negotiated an agreement with Khrushchev that the US would remove its missiles that were threatening Russia if Russia removed its missiles that were threatening the US. Kennedy also had to promise that the US would not invade Cuba. No troops, no invasion, no missiles: like now.

What actually de-escalated the Cuban missile crisis was Kennedy’s willingness to negotiate a quid pro quo agreement with Khrushchev. In When Presidents Lie, Eric Alterman gives a detailed account of the often untold story. Robert Kennedy passed a message to the Soviet embassy, more than once, that the US would remove their missile basis from Turkey and Italy if the Soviets would remove theirs from Cuba. Khrushchev’s memoirs make it clear that this offer was the turning point for him: he would accept the offer to remove his missiles from Cuba in exchange for the removal of US Jupiter missiles with nuclear warheads in Turkey. Khrushchev wrote Kennedy that the Soviets accepted the terms of the agreement after Kennedy agreed to remove missile bases in Turkey.

As Robert Kennedy’s messages to the Soviet ambassador suggest, the deal may have also involved the removal of American Jupiter missiles in Italy that were dismantled right after the crisis, but Alterman says that this has not been definitively confirmed.

To remove the missiles from Cuba, given the justified fears of a US invasion that they were meant to prevent, Noam Chomsky reports that Khrushchev also sent a letter directly to President Kennedy that clearly stated that he would only remove the missiles from Cuba if Kennedy also promised not to invade Cuba. Kennedy made an informal promise not to invade. Chomsky points out that Kennedy promised a bit cagily that "we probably wouldn’t invade."

Like today, both promises were a quid pro quo. The US will remove its missiles if the Soviets remove their missiles. Similarly, Kennedy conditioned the US promise not to invade Cuba on the Soviet promise of a reduction of its military presence in Cuba.

But, then, as now, the US insisted that the negotiations be kept deeply secret so they could avoid losing face and prestige by having to admit that they forced the missiles out of Cuba, not by bravely staring the Russians down, but by negotiating and conceding a quid pro quo agreement.

It is very clear that the current US negotiations were undertaken only under the cloak of secrecy. Ray McGovern reports that the Russian media has been reporting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had told Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov that the US would send a response to Russia’s demands but that they did not want the contents made public. The content is only public because it was leaked. Lieven writes that progress toward a solution may be possible "at least if negotiations can be kept strictly secret."

The US always publicly maintained that no deal was made with Khrushchev. That the American concessions remain unknown was key to Kennedy. The Soviet ambassador’s cable to the Soviet foreign ministry makes this clear. Alterman says that it makes it clear that President Kennedy’s only issue would be a public announcement because, if the truth were known, it would damage US leadership in NATO. In the cable, the Soviet ambassador reports that Robert Kennedy said that "The greatest difficulty for the president is the public discussion of the issue of Turkey." He reports that Robert Kennedy said that his brother was willing to remove the missiles from Turkey; "However, the president can’t say anything public in this regard about Turkey." He warned that this had to be "extremely confidential."

Chomsky adds that, to maintain the appearance that Khrushchev, and not Kennedy, capitulated, the US refused to put its offer to remove the missiles from Turkey in writing. Robert Kennedy rejected a Soviet request that the understanding be put in writing. Ellsberg says that the US offer to remove the missiles from Turkey was explicitly contingent upon the Soviets never revealing the "secret understanding."

From Russia trying to leverage an end to US aggression; to Russian actions being presented as aggressive when they are defensive responses to threatening US actions; to reciprocal concessions on missiles and nuclear weapons; to US promises to remove troops and weapons or not to invade; to American willingness to negotiate only if they can save face behind the veil of secrecy, the events in Ukraine today and Cuba sixty years ago bear a striking similarity.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.