In the history of the world, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest mankind came to Armageddon. Today, the unpredictability of the Ukraine war may take the world closer than ever to doomsday. It may still appear to be an unlikely scenario, but the world could be edging towards it.
In 1962, the two superpowers, the USSR and the US, were led by leaders who, in retrospect, make the present bunch look like pygmies.
They de-escalated the crisis in 13 days with both sides showing restraint. To avoid risking direct confrontation, the Soviets even diverted their ships when the US quarantined the zone and later shipped home their offensive weapons from Cuba. In return, the US promised not to invade the island nation and quietly withdrew the nuclear-armed missiles that it had installed in Turkey.
Today, the danger is that Russia, a nuclear superpower, is at war and the US has pulled all stops in a much-publicised attempt to “inflict pain” as its president, Joe Biden, said in his first State of the Union Address. The West has also employed a repertoire of crippling economic sanctions that the Vladimir Putin said was akin to “an act of war”. Putin’s warning that if any nation tries to “hinder” Russia or threaten it, Moscow’s “response will be immediate”, leading to consequences “never faced” by the intervener, has been largely ignored.
Putting his nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” also had little effect. Recognising the effectiveness of the Western arms supply, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that any cargo carrying weapons to Ukraine could become its “legitimate targets”.
Biden and the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have become dangerously confrontational. The former’s public call for a regime change in Moscow was at best an ill-advised provocation. Calling Putin a “criminal” has earned the US nothing except exposing many US presidents to being similarly described. Further, it has strengthened the Kremlin and pushed the Russian people to rally around their embattled president. As French President Emmanuel Macron remarked, “personal insults” can only inflame the situation.
It appears that the US is intent on delivering Russia the same blow it landed on its predecessor, the USSR, after its intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. This policy is dangerous. It may lead to the situation spinning out of control.
The US, Canada, Australia, France, Netherlands and a host of other nations are shipping large quantities of sophisticated and heavy weapons capable of seriously degrading Russia’s less sophisticated large artillery guns, their mainstay in the war. The guns supplied could become more lethal as the US is directing their fire. In addition, they are providing real-time intelligence and engaging in several secret ways to wreak maximum destruction of Russian forces. London on its part is provoking Ukraine to strike inside Russia.
If the Russian military suffers heavy damage, Moscow could have a closer look at the US policy undergirding the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002”. It reasons that it would be an act of “self-defence,” to “act against” “emerging threats before they are fully formed.”
George W Bush justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003 asserting that it has the right of pre-emptive military action and declared, “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.” If Moscow adopts this doctrine, then it could claim the right to take out weapons arriving from neighbouring NATO countries using its hypersonic missiles. It could even use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
The Western alliance is taking a grave risk in assuming that Russia will not use such weapons and will continue to suffer and eventually withdraw. To anyone who knows the Russian psyche, that is a fanciful hope. Moscow had dropped its no-first-use policy in 1993 to counter groupings deploying large conventional forces against it. Moscow could be pushed to use the same logic that the US did in dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that it seriously contemplated using at least on two occasions when it was staring at defeat — during the Korean War and in Vietnam.
Many have got Putin wrong many times. Many believed that his pleas for NATO to stop expanding further east and Lavrov’s pleas that
Moscow was reaching “boiling” point contained no threat. It had and Putin went to war.
Tactical nuclear weapons with a yield of 0.1 to 1 kiloton were first developed by the US and NATO deployed it in the 1950s. Deceptively named rockets like Honest John carried these weapons that had varying yield up to 20 kilotons (the bomb dropped in Hiroshima had a 16-kiloton yield).
Scholars like Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, and Robert Osgood, professor and adviser to US president Ronald Reagan, argued that the West could take on the Soviet Union using these weapons in “limited nuclear wars” without resorting to the “threats of massive retaliation”.
The effectiveness of this doctrine has, however, not been tested. It would be unwise on the part of Biden and the Western alliance to escalate the Ukrainian crisis by waging a proxy war with a nuclear superpower that suffers conventional arms asymmetry. It would not be prudent to test the limits of Putin’s resolve.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 21, 2022, under the title ‘Avoidable gambit’. Thomas Mathew is a retired civil servant who has served in the Indian Defence Ministry, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and writes on security issues