October 21, 2022 Special Dispatch No. 10275

Consensus Among Russian Commentators: Ukraine Poses A Greater Risk Of Nuclear Escalation Than The Cuban Missile Crisis

October 21, 2022
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 10275

At a Democratic Party fundraiser US President Joe Biden referred to Russian hints about the possible use of nuclear weapons and invoked the Cuban missile crisis of sixty years ago "We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis." [1]

The comparison is not new to Russian commentators, but Biden's comment naturally aroused a response in the Russian commentariat. The general consensus was that if anything the situation was more perilous today than back in 1962. While one could expect Russian official such as Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov to endorse this view to make the nuclear threat more credible, inducing the West to back off, this pessimism is echoed by Russian experts, who cannot be labeled as cheerleaders of the war in Ukraine and in the case of Russian International Affairs Council head Andrey Kortunov have previously criticized loose talk and ambiguity on the nuclear issue.[2]

Below is a sampling of comparisons being made between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of a nuclear escalation in Ukraine:

Above: John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev, below: Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (Source:

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov speaking at a conference at the Diplomatic Academy noted that “the approaching 60th anniversary of the Caribbean crisis, when the Soviet Union and the United States of America almost crossed the fatal line, offers a direct perspective on what is occurring today in a harsh confrontation surrounding Ukraine, where the collective West has effectively unleashed a proxy war against our country.”

In the 1960s, Ryabkov claimed, the leaders of the two nuclear powers had the wisdom to step back from the brink by working out a geopolitical compromise that was ambiguously perceived in the USSR and especially in the United States.

Now, argued Ryabkov, the situation, is "fundamentally different." Russia, as follows from his further comment, considers the United States "incapable of negotiating in principle" and aims at Russia's "strategic defeat" of Moscow.

At the same time, he stressed that "an open confrontation with the United States and NATO, fraught with a direct military clash, is not in the interests of Russia." “We hope that the Biden administration is also aware of the danger of an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict in Ukraine,” Sergei Ryabkov said.

"To say that relations between the United States and Russia have reached a dangerous point is an understatement today," Anatoly Antonov, Russian Ambassador to Washington, said on Russia's First channel. According to Antonov, the parties "have not yet reached the peak of tension that existed 60 years ago." “But Washington has already forgotten the basics of strategic stability, the essence of which boils down to a simple formula: whoever fires first will die second. On the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I want to believe that there are those in the United States who have learned this lesson,” he said.

Alexei Arbatov, who heads the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations believes that as in Cuba “The USSR and the USA are close to the brink of nuclear war. and unfortunately, there is no movement in the opposite direction yet. Arbatov subscribes to the view that the apocalypse was averted by luck because there were times that the situations appeared to get out of hand. This is further cause for alarm because "although the war in Ukraine differs from the Cuban crisis, it is not difficult to imagine comparable failures and miscalculations."

The second similarity between Cuba and Ukraine is the battle over spheres of influence. Cuba represented an American reaction to Soviet attempts to control of part of its Latin American sphere of influence.  The Ukrainian crisis was similarly precipitated by Moscow's attempt to prevent by force the advance by the United States and NATO into the post-Soviet space, regarded by Russia as its sphere of influence.

Arbatov, unlike the other experts believes that Ukraine poses less a danger than Cuba did. For starters, no nuclear weapons have been deployed in Ukraine, whereas in Cuba the Soviet Union had moved nuclear missiles. Second, Cuba was a short crisis of two-weeks duration, whereas Ukraine is in its eight month without crossing the nuclear threshold. US nuclear superiority in 1962 made it possible to contemplate a nuclear exchange, whereas the current nuclear parity rules out resort to nuclear weapons as a rational option. Finally, arms control arrangements were non-existent before the Cuban missile crisis.[3]

Alexei Arbatov (Source:

Dmitry Trenin: Arrogance Of American Political Class Makes The Conflict More Dangerous

Dmitry Trenin, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and a professor at the Higher School of Economics agrees with Arbatov that the sphere of influence calculations is a similarity between the two crises but here the similarities end making the current crisis more dangerous. It was more dangerous due to a change in American attitudes.

"In 1962, Washington viewed Moscow as an equal military-political and ideological rival, and was ready not only for confrontation, but also for a compromise with the USSR.

"60 years later, Russia appears before the American political class as a second-rate or even a third-rate country, which has only energy resources and nuclear weapons among the elements of national power."

America is trying to suppress Russia's trade in energy products. As for nuclear weapons, the US believes that Russia will use them only in Europe thus sparing the US.

"The fear of global nuclear annihilation that induced US President John F. Kennedy to the path of dialogue with Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev is virtually absent today, as is the living memory of World War II, in which the USSR and the United States were allies. Thus, the asymmetry of the current position of the two powers and the tremendous increase in the American political class' arrogance since the end of the Cold War have an extremely negative impact on the strategic stability in relations between the United States and Russia."

Another difference between Cuba and Ukraine, argues Trenin,  is the degree to which the United States has Russia and its leadership, which far surpasses the historical rejection of communism and the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. "Russia and its President Vladimir Putin have become symbols of universal evil in America and Europe, and this significantly narrows the possibilities not only for productive dialogue, but even for respectful contacts."

Therefore, the communication and technical opportunities alluded to by Arbatov count for little. Communications are sterile if the US leaders only talk to the Kremlin to demand Russia's capitulation and any compromise that takes account of Russia's interests is toxic in the current political and public atmosphere in the West and would be politically suicidal for an American leader.[4]

Dmitry Trenin (Source:

Maxim Yusin: The Death Of Secret Diplomacy Makes It Difficult To Seek Compromise

Kommersant's international affairs expert Maxim Yusin adds more differences between Cuba and Ukraine that explain why "the situation is much more dangerous today than it was 60 years ago." One of them ironically considering Russia's advocacy of multipolarism is the separate agendas of America's junior partners:

"There are far more actors in the Ukrainian crisis now. And many of them deliberately work to escalate.

"That very same Washington, despite the status of the main world power, has to some extent becomes a hostage to the radicalism, ambitions, uncompromisingness, and thirst for revenge of its junior partners."

The shift from secret diplomacy to public diplomacy is also a negative factor.

"60 years ago, many more opportunities for secret, non-public diplomacy existed. It was thanks to [such secret diplomacy] that a compromise was eventually found. Now, in the age of the Internet and social networks, it is much more difficult to achieve similar agreements. The indignant public, from bloggers and activists to deputies and populist ministers, will present any compromise as a betrayal, capitulation, a sign of weakness, a departure from principles, and appeasing the aggressor".

Yusin, like Trenin feels that as opposed to Cuba, the US is intent on pushing Russia to the wall: "Sixty years ago, despite the fiercest ideological confrontation, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union sought to destroy their opponent. The game went on for a long time - for decades. And now Western politicians openly declare that their goal is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia from which it will not recover, to destroy its economy.

"When one of the nuclear powers leaves no alternative escape route [to its opponent], no worthy way out of the impasse, this is a very dangerous logic. And it can be suicidal. During the Caribbean crisis, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had a similar logic."[5]

If all the above was not sufficient grounds for alarm Andrey Kortunov lists seven further differences::[6]

"Today it has become quite fashionable to draw parallels between the current state of Russo-American relations and the famous Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

"All the more so as we are approaching the 60th anniversary of the latter: the decision of the John F. Kennedy administration to impose a blockade against Cuba was taken at the White House on the evening of October 20th, after which the crisis moved to its acute phase.

Andrey Kortunov: In Ukraine The Stakes Are Much Higher Than They Were In Cuba

"While there are obvious similarities between the two episodes of military and political confrontation of Moscow and Washington, there are several fundamental differences between them that clearly illustrate the unprecedented danger of the current situation, even compared to the dramatic events of the early 1960s. Let’s list some of them.

"First. The Cuban Missile Crisis was brief: from the decision on blockading Cuba blockade to the beginning of the Soviet-made “R-12” missiles on the island's dismantlement, less than two weeks passed. Today’s crisis has lasted for seven and a half months and has long been a constituent part of the “new geopolitical daily routine.” Additionally, we still haven’t reached the crisis’s nadir (as it seems).

"Second. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a “clean” nuclear crisis. Effectively, the dispute between the two superpowers was over one concrete issue, i.e., the withdrawal of “R-12” missiles from Cuba by the Soviet Union of in exchange for US renunciation of its attempts to overthrow the Fidel Castro regime. An additional condition that Moscow insisted on was the withdrawal of the US-made Jupiter missiles from Turkish territory.

"Today’s crisis isn’t limited to the nuclear sphere, but has been aggravated by the fact that the US has long been tacitly involved in a massive military conflict on the European continent with Russia, providing comprehensive military, technical, intelligence, economic, and other support to Ukraine.

"Third. For both sides involved, the stakes in the current crisis are higher than they were 60 years ago. Cuba, naturally, was of great symbolic and practical importance for both the US and the Soviet Union, but the fate of Ukraine is still more important to both the Kremlin and the White House.

"A clear defeat for Moscow would place not only the current Russian leadership's fate, but also the future of Russian statehood as such under threat. A US defeat could trigger NATO’s collapse, to put an end to efforts to restore America’s undermined leadership in world politics, and guarantee a change in power in the 2024 presidential elections.

"Fourth, the composition of the nuclear missile arsenals that Moscow and Washington possess today fundamentally differs from anything they had at their disposal in 1962. For instance, in the early 1960s there were no modern high-precision systems, and small and miniature-sized nuclear warheads were still in the development stage. Accordingly, the boundary between nuclear and conventional warfare was clearly marked. Today, however, this line is much less defined, and there are occasional discussions on both sides of the conflict about the “admissibility” of a limited nuclear conflict.

"Fifth, 60 years ago, the level of mutual respect and even of mutual trust between the leaders of Moscow and Washington was much higher than what can be seen today. In the decisive days of October 1962, the two leaders proceeded from the assumption that the agreements reached would somehow be implemented.

"Today, such confidence is lacking in both the Kremlin, and the White House. Furthermore, it seems, that both sides of the conflict are totally convinced that their respective adversary is in a state of deep and irreversible decline, and, therefore, any strategic agreements with it make little sense.

"Sixth, the lines of communication continued to function during the Cuban Missile Crisis: the Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin met repeatedly with Robert Kennedy, and was maintaining constant personal contact with Secretary of State, Dean Rusk. Russian Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov can only dream of such access to top US officials. The new American ambassador to Russia, Lynn Tracy, hasn’t yet came Moscow, and it’s not even known, when she will finally show up at Spaso House [the US ambassador's residence in Moscow].

"Seventh, The two protagonists of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, personally went through all the horrors and hardships of World War II, undergoing it practically from start to finish in Europe (Khrushchev) - in Europe, and in the Pacific (Kennedy).

"Vladimir Putin and Joseph Biden are already members of the post-WW2 generation. Although President Biden was born in 1942, he barely remembers anything about the war years and it’s unlikely that the 46th president of the US can imagine the consequences of the new global conflict as vividly as the 35th master of the White House.

"Despite all the differences between the two situations, the words of John F. Kennedy that were said at American University on June 10, 1963, six months after the two superpowers successfully evaded a fall into the abyss of nuclear war, remain relevant:

"'Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy--or of a collective death-wish for the world.'"[7]


[1], October 8, 2022.

[3], October 12, 2022.

[4], October 12, 2022.

[5], October 18, 2022.

[6], October 17, 2022.

[7] Original text of the speech taken from

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