Revisiting Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis



    • There is an urgent need to revisit the sobering lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis to end the Russia Ukraine War.

    Key Points          

    • Background: 
      • Russia’s short ‘special military operation’ to ‘de-Nazify and de-militarise’ Ukraine is already a nine-month-war, and likely to extend into 2023; 
      • For the present, Russia is too strong to lose and Ukraine, despite NATO support, too weak to win; so, the war grinds on with no ceasefire in sight.
    • Concerns: 
      • There is one outcome that must be prevented — a breakdown of nuclear deterrence
      • Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and a global conscience has sustained the nuclear taboo for over 75 years. 

    Cuban Missile Crisis: Course of Events

    • Precursor :
      • An important precursor of the Cuban missile crisis was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.
      • In this, US-backed Cuban counter-revolutionaries attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in the country and establish a non-communist government friendly to the US.
      • After successfully fending off the operation, Castro turned increasingly towards the USSR and its premier Khrushchev, to deter any future invasion by the US. 
    • USSR’s missile installation in Cuba:
      • Having promised to defend Cuba with Soviet arms, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev initiated the installation of Soviet medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. 
      • Such missiles could hit much of the eastern United States within a few minutes if launched from Cuba. 
      • Khrushchev also wanted to place nuclear weapons in Cuba to counter the urgent threat of US missiles close to its own borders.
    • US Action & Naval “quarantine”:
      • On October 16, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was informed that the U.S.S.R. was preparing to deploy medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. 
      • Kennedy announced that U.S. forces would seize “offensive weapons and associated matériel” that Soviet vessels might attempt to deliver to Cuba.
      • After deliberating with his core group of advisers, he rejected the idea of an invasion or a nuclear threat against Moscow, and on October 22, declared a naval ‘quarantine’ of Cuba.
      • In this, US destroyers and submarines were placed around Cuba in order to prevent military supplies being brought to the island.
    • Standoff:
      • As the two superpowers hovered close to the brink of nuclear war, On October 28 Khrushchev capitulated, informing Kennedy that 
        • Work on the missile sites would be halted and  
        • The missiles already in Cuba would be returned to the Soviet Union. 
      • In return, Kennedy committed the United States to never invading Cuba.
      • Both superpowers began to fulfil their promises over the coming weeks, and the crisis was over by late November.
      • The standoff was resolved and disaster was narrowly averted. This is accredited to timely negotiations between Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F Kennedy.
    • Unforeseen Events:
      • On October 27, a U.S. surveillance flight strayed over Cuban airspace and was targeted by Soviet air defence forces. 
      • Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down, the only casualty. This happened despite Kennedy having counselled desisting from provocative surveillance and Khrushchev not having authorised the engagement. 
      • Both sides kept the news under wraps till the crisis defused when Major Anderson’s sacrifice was recognised and honoured.
      • A day earlier, a Soviet nuclear armed submarine B-59 found itself trapped by U.S. depth charges, off Cuban waters. The U.S. was unaware that the submarine was nuclear armed and Captain Valentin Savitsky did not know that a quarantine was in operation. 
        • He decided to go down fighting but his decision to launch a nuclear bomb was vetoed by Capt. Vasily Arkhipov. 
        • The Soviets followed a two-person-authorisation-rule and unknown to Kennedy and Khrushchev, a potential Armageddon was averted.
    • Ammunitions used:
      • Over 150 warheads for the FKR-1 Meteor missile, 
      • Short range FROG missile, and 
      • Gravity bombs were already present in Cuba. 
    • Lessons: 
      • The two nuclear superpowers should steer clear of any direct confrontation even as their rivalry played out in other regions, thereby keeping it below the nuclear threshold
      • Deterrence theorists called it ‘the stability-instability-paradox’. 
      • With their assured-second-strike-capability guaranteeing mutually-assured-destruction, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R were obliged to limit the instability to proxy wars

    Implications of Cuban Missile crisis in World History

    • U.S.-Soviet Relations:
      • The Cuban missile crisis marked the climax of an acutely antagonistic period in U.S.-Soviet relations.
      • After the Cuban missile crisis, the two superpowers created the Moscow-Washington hotline, so that their leaders could have a direct communication link and prevent such tensions. 
    • Fall of Khrushchev:
      • It is generally believed that the Soviets’ humiliation in Cuba played an important part in Khrushchev’s fall from power in October 1964 and in the Soviet Union’s determination to achieve, at the least, a nuclear parity with the United States.
    • Closest to Nuclear War:
      • The crisis also marked the closest point that the world had ever come to global nuclear war.
    • No End for Cold War:
      • While nuclear warfare was thankfully averted, the Cuban missile crisis did not mark the resolution of the Cold War, nor the culmination of the ever-growing arms race.

    Cold War

    • Origin:
      • Post World War II (1945), the world got divided into two power blocs dominated by two superpowers, the US and Soviet Union.
      • The period is generally considered to span from the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
    • About:
      • The Cold War referred to the competition, the tensions and a series of confrontations between the US and Soviet Union.
      • It was not simply a matter of power rivalries, of military alliances and of the balance of power.
    • The ‘cold’ war:
      • The term cold war is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two superpowers, but they each supported major regional conflicts known as proxy wars. 
    • Ideological Conflict:
      • These were accompanied by a real ideological conflict between communism and capitalism.
        • The western alliance, headed by the US, represented the ideology of liberal democracy and capitalism.
        • The eastern alliance, headed by the Soviet Union, was committed to the ideology of socialism and communism.
      • There was a difference over the best and the most appropriate way of organising political, economic and social life all over the world.

    Present Context: Russia’s Nuclear Signalling

    • The Ukraine war is testing the old lessons of nuclear deterrence. 
    • Russia sees itself at war, not with non-nuclear Ukraine, but with a nuclear armed NATO. 
    • Mr. Putin has therefore engaged in repeated nuclear signalling — from being personally present in mid-February at large-scale exercises involving ‘strategic forces’, to placing nuclear forces on ‘special combat alert’  in February 2022.
    • A ‘partial mobilisation’, announced referendums in the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, accused the West of engaging in nuclear blackmail and warned that Russia has ‘more modern weapons’ and ‘will certainly make use of all weapon systems available.

    Way Ahead in Russia Ukraine War

    • Influence of Global Leaders: The United Nations (UN) appears paralysed given the involvement of permanent members of the Security Council (UNSC). Therefore, it is for other global leaders who have access and influence, to convince Mr. Putin that nuclear escalation would be a disastrous move. The lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis remain valid 60 years later.
    • Persuading Russia: 
      • In the run-up to the G-20 summit, the Indonesian President and the Prime Minister of India are well placed to take a diplomatic initiative to persuade Mr. Putin to step away from the nuclear rhetoric. This means emphasising the deterrent role of nuclear weapons and not expanding it.
      • Such a statement would help reduce growing fears of escalation and may also provide a channel for communication and open the door for a dialogue that can lead to a ceasefire. 
    • Role of India: India can play an important role here. In a bilateral meeting with Mr. Putin in Samarkand, Prime Minister of India emphasised that “now is not the era of war”. 

    Source: TH

    Mains Practice Question

    [Q] It is time to revisit the sobering lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis. Discuss in the context of the ongoing Russia Ukraine war.