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Is the War in Ukraine More Dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis?

An F-35A Lightning II from the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, flies behind a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 117th Air Refueling Squadron, Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kansas, over the Indo-Pacific, March 10, 2022. Aircrews routinely fly missions aimed at sharpening the necessary skills needed to respond to emerging situations at a moment’s notice. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yosselin Perla)

Clearly, there are many experts that are concerned these days that the war in Ukraine could become a full-fledged nuclear war as Russian President Putin keeps making nuclear threats. But we should not forget that the Cold War offers some perspective on how to avoid the use of atomic arms. And in fact, the Cuban Missile Crisis might offer the most important lessons of all: 

This October marks 60 years since the Cuban missile crisis, one of the most climactic moments of the 20th century when a nuclear catastrophe was only narrowly avoided. But today’s simmering Ukraine war poses ‘far worse’ nuclear dangers, experts say.

The war in Ukraine has been raging for nearly eight months, with Russian leadership escalating its threats, even hinting that it could go nuclear, and no clear off-ramp for de-escalation. Historians and nuclear experts warn that the war has created a dangerous moment similar to the Cuban missile crisis, with some observers contending that the current situation is even more precarious.

“The current crisis is far worse than the Cuban missile crisis, in part because during the Cuban missile crisis both Kennedy and Khrushchev were willing to discuss a way of walking back the confrontation. There is no such option on the table here,” Cynthia Hooper, a history professor and Russia expert at the College of the Holy Cross, told Insider.

Russia has the nuclear arms to back up its threats against Ukraine, and experts see a disconnect between the US and Russian leaders that may contribute to a dire miscalculation — in stark contrast to the Cuban missile crisis.

When the US discovered in the early 1960s that the Soviets were installing nuclear missile sites in Cuba, just 90 miles away from the continental United States, President John F. Kennedy enacted a naval “quarantine” or blockade of the island to prevent more weapons from being delivered. The American president made clear that the US was prepared to use military force if necessary and demanded the Soviets dismantle the sites and remove its missiles from Cuba.

Tensions between the US and the Soviet Union skyrocketed, but deliberate diplomacy and communication between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev prevented further escalation.

The Soviets agreed to dismantle and remove their missiles, as Kennedy pledged to never invade Cuba and secretly agreed to pull US missiles out of Turkey. Historians widely consider this episode the closest the world has ever come to a hot war between two nuclear powers.

A “key difference” between the current situation in Ukraine and the Cuban missile crisis is the lack of communication between Biden and Putin, said Rose Gottemoeller, who served as a former senior State Department official for arms control and nonproliferation issues and former deputy secretary general of NATO, during a recent panel hosted by the Arms Control Association (ACA), adding that this worries her.

T-84 Ukraine

A T-84 tank from Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

“Today, the two presidents are not talking to each other,” she said.

“President Biden has made clear his views that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. And Vladimir Putin has responded that these remarks are unforgivable,” Gottemoeller said. “So the communications between the two top leaders have been very much on ice, and I think for good reason in many ways. But I do think communicating at a high level at some point during this crisis will be necessary.”

‘The heightened risk of nuclear war’

Russia and the US collectively possess roughly 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads, with each controlling massive nuclear arsenals far more advanced than they were in the 1960s.

The arsenals, however, are not all that has changed. In tense moments between the US and USSR, such as the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev was open to finding a path toward de-escalation, but Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power in Russia for more than two decades, has only taken increasingly escalatory steps since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.

Putin said he placed Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert just days after the war began, and he has made repeated nuclear threats since launching the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Some Russia watchers believe these may be scare tactics, but with the war going badly for Russia, there are growing concerns that Putin could make good on these threats. The Biden administration has privately warned Russia there would be “catastrophic consequences” were Russia to use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

Russian Tanks in Ukraine

Russian Tanks in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

President Joe Biden recently suggested that the world is now the closest its been to nuclear “Armageddon” since the Cuban missile crisis. His comment triggered criticism, but experts tend to agree with Biden’s assessment.

“This crisis is more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis,” Andy Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological programs, recently told Politico. “President Biden’s reported reference to ‘Armageddon’ is not an exaggeration,” Weber added.

“It’s sad that not only are we 30 years beyond the so-called end of the Cold War, but we’re 60 years beyond the last great nuclear crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. Yet here we are talking about the heightened risk of nuclear war,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the ACA, said during his organization’s recent panel.

‘Who knows what would happen’

Analysts have expressed concern that Putin’s recent decision to annex four regions of Ukraine — declaring Ukrainian land as parts of Russian territory — has raised risk of nuclear conflict. As he announced the annexations, Putin warned that Russia would “make use of all weapon systems available to us” if his country’s “territorial integrity” is threatened. “This is not a bluff,” he added.

TOS-1A Ukraine

TOS-1A fighting in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Despite these unsettling developments, there is general agreement among leading experts that the risk of a nuclear weapon being used remains low.

Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the ACA panel on Tuesday that it’s unlikely that Russia will employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The conflict would have to “escalate significantly” to a “direct clash between NATO and Russia” for this to be on the table, he said.

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Biden also expressed skepticism that Putin would use a nuke in Ukraine even as tensions run high.

“I don’t think he will,” Biden said of Putin, adding that he thinks “it’s irresponsible for him to talk about it, the idea that a world leader of one of the largest nuclear powers in the world says he may use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.”

Kerch Bridge Ukraine War

Kerch Bridge. Image Credit: Social Media Screenshot.

“Once you use a nuclear weapon,” the president said, “the mistakes that can be made, the miscalculations, who knows what would happen?”

John Haltiwanger is a senior politics reporter at Business Insider, where this first appeared. He reports on all things politics with a particular focus on national security and foreign policy. John has a BA in History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an MSc in International Relations from the University of Glasgow. When he’s not reporting, John is likely searching for the best pizza slice in Brooklyn or watching/playing soccer. 

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John Haltiwanger is a senior politics reporter at Business Insider. He reports on all things politics with a particular focus on national security and foreign policy.