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Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor of POLITICO Europe.
Neither side had intended it to happen.
In October 1962, the United States and Russia were on the verge of nuclear Armageddon in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis – a potentially catastrophic 13-day standoff 144 kilometers off the Florida coast.
Neither side had planned the confrontation. The dirty little secret is that for all the talk of ruses, governments and leaders are too often poor real-world chess players. Too often their decisions are based on incorrect or insufficient information and prejudicial conjectures which can quickly collapse or, in the words of German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, « no plan survives contact with the enemy ». And too often leaders have to make things up as they go along, as seems to have happened 61 years ago.
Similarly, some savvy observers of today’s Russian leader argue that President Vladimir Putin never had a plan much other than the capture of Kiev when he launched his invasion of Ukraine – something he thought would fall into his hands within days, as his intelligence chiefs had assured him. And while Putin continues to adapt and adjust in real time, he remains alarmed about the potential nuclear escalation linked to Ukraine.
As military historian Max Hastings demonstrates in his book « The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962, » President John F. Kennedy’s White House had wriggled, trying to figure out what then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s master plan was, assuming that he should have had one.
As it turned out, he didn’t – and he was as eager as the Americans to find a face-saving solution to what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan later described as « this strange and as yet scarcely explainable affair ». The day was ultimately saved only by Kennedy’s common sense, who turned his back on apoplectic hotheaded officials for denying himself the apocalypse.
Kennedy « adopted a strategy that emphasized his own resolve and that of his nation, rejecting courses that might precipitate Armageddon, » Hastings wrote — but it was a colossally almost unnerving failing. And when all the terrifying furore was over, it was US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who pointed out how human misjudgment could prove catastrophic: « What about the Second Lieutenant? » he asked eloquently.
In other words, never underestimate the human factor once a crisis starts to unfold.
October 1962 resonates now, especially considering Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s repeated warnings that Russia might consider blowing up the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, after returning it to the Ukrainians.
“We know for sure that this was considered by the Russian Federation as one of the plans, so that later, when the station is handed over to us, to remotely detonate it,” Zelenskyy said last week. And fighting near Europe’s second-largest nuclear power plant had already sparked anxiety for months about the heightened risks of a potential radioactive explosion.
Of course, it’s not just Zaporizhzhia that exercises minds. Putin has often warned of « threatening consequences » for any nation that meddles with his country’s invasion of Ukraine. And his best associates have made all sorts of gruesome nuclear threats, the most explicit since the Cold War.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and current deputy chairman of the National Security Council, was at the forefront of this missile launch, emission another threat last Wednesday, saying the war could be « over in days » by doing what « the Americans did in 1945 when they deployed nuclear weapons and bombed two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. »
However, some Ukrainian and Western officials, as well as many analysts, are dismissive of these threats, invariably suggesting that they are just that: threats aimed at intimidating Western countries and trying to limit their support for Kiev.
For example, the Institute for the Study of War argues that Medvedev’s latest rant was likely timed to discourage member nations ahead of the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius. And in a recent research paperSimilarly, Chatham House’s Keir Giles argues that Moscow is using nuclear threats to shape and constrain Western responses to war, writing that « Western leaders have explicitly justified their reluctance to provide essential military assistance to Ukraine by referencing Russian narratives of an uncontrollable escalation ».
“This success comes from the consistent failure of the Western public and decision-makers to consider how unrealistic Russia’s threats are, or to measure them against its real – and unchanged – nuclear position. It is essential that responses to Russia’s intimidating rhetoric be guided by a realistic assessment of its basis in reality, rather than fear-induced paralysis,” Giles argues.
However, he concludes that « effective use of nuclear weapons by Russia remains not impossible but highly improbable » and that the Russian leadership would likely be dissuaded out of fear of the serious « consequences of violating the nuclear taboo ».
But Russia has already broken many taboos: the invasion itself, the atrocities committed in the cities it has occupied, the destruction of the dams, the attack on civilians and their homes and, of course, the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children, prompting the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Russia’s misappointed children’s rights commissioner.
Clearly, it seems, taboos may not have the power they once did, so should Western leaders and politicians really bet that they do? And should they assume that Putin is not suicidal, or that his subordinates would intervene if he becomes one and orders the use of tactical nuclear weapons? All pretty big assumptions when the price for getting it wrong could be hundreds of thousands of lives, if not more.
Just like Kennedy and his top aides, today’s leaders are also struggling to understand Moscow. Think back to just 18 months, when most European powers, as well as the Ukrainian president, rejected Anglo-American warnings that a full-scale invasion was likely.
Of course, nuclear threats may turn out to be hollow. David Kramer, an assistant secretary of state in US President George W. Bush’s administration who has studied Putin closely, has consistently argued that the Russian leader makes things up and changes his mind as he goes along. “Some are out of desperation, but they are also looking for openings in the West,” Kramer told POLITICO last year. The goal is to keep everyone on the alert and wondering what he might do next, in hopes of engineering Western indecision.
And it works. Currently, both Ukrainian and Western officials say they will not be intimidated and, rightly so, that they cannot give in to nuclear blackmail. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also frequently reiterates that the alliance will continue to support Ukraine despite Russia’s « dangerous and ill-advised nuclear rhetoric ». But US President Joe Biden’s administration is aware and determined not to do anything that could precipitate a nuclear disaster, hence the careful calibration of what weapons to supply the Ukrainians – to Kiev’s frustration.
Zelensky himself has sometimes he warned that even Putin may not be bluffing. « It could be a reality, » she said last year, adding that the world must keep up the pressure on Moscow not to escalate.
And behind the scenes, it’s not just Ukraine’s allies making Putin realize that nuclear escalation shouldn’t even be considered. According to Chinese officials, President Xi Jinping personally warned Putin against using nuclear weapons, delivering the message during his state visit to Moscow in March.
“Ukrainians are convinced that the right messages have been sent from China,” Adrian Karatnycky, a senior non-resident member of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told POLITICO. And as part of a recent delegation to Ukraine, the country’s foreign ministry informed him and others that « the Chinese are working very hard to get the Russians to place the Zaporizhzhia plant under the full control of the International Agency for ‘atomic energy’.
« China wants to prove that they are a powerful international broker and a major force in all of these things, and this would be a big showpiece if they can pull it off, » he added. But the very fact that Xi is pushing Putin on the nuclear issue suggests that he too harbors a concern about how his ally might react to further defeats on the battlefield.
And we probably all should, even if the chances of a nuclear escalation are slim. After all, as McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor during the Cuban Missile Crisis, noted years later: « The risk may be very small indeed and still too great for comfort. »