Russia-Ukraine war

  • IASbaba
  • November 3, 2022
  • 0
International Relations
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Lessons from Cuba:

  • In October 1962, when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had moved nuclear missiles to Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba, thus blocking access for Soviet ships.
  • While most members of the executive committee of his National Security Council favoured airstrikes on Cuba targeting the Soviet missiles, Kennedy stuck to quarantine, which was also one of the recommendations of the committee.
  • At the same time, he opened a back channel to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev reciprocated to Kennedy’s message, which he saw as a “call for help”, and both leaders pulled their countries back from the brink of a nuclear war.


  • The world has seen several military conflicts since the Cuban missile crisis. There have been wars across continents. Both the former Soviet Union and the U.S. had launched interventions, invasions and proxy conflicts in weaker countries.
  • But a 1962-like scenario, where two nuclear superpowers came eyeball to eyeball never happened — until the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.
  • The Ukraine war is a textbook example where the parties involved are treating each other with matching hostility — a dangerous slope — sharply escalating the conflict.
  • It looks like a complex polycentric conflict where, inside Ukrainian territory, Russia’s nuclear-armed forces are battling high-performing Ukrainian troops that are directly assisted, in terms of money, weapons and fighters, by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the trans-Atlantic nuclear alliance.

Comparison with the past:

  • Besides fears of the existing conflict escalating into a direct Russia-NATO war, there are similarities and dissimilarities between the Cuban missile crisis and the Ukraine war.
  • Khrushchev secretly moved the nuclear missiles to Cuba after the failed Central Intelligence Agency-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of the island in 1961, where the guerrillas, under the command of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, had overthrown a pro-American military dictatorship in 1959.
  • Later, the Soviets claimed that the missiles were for defensive purposes, but the U.S. found the presence of nuclear missiles in an island 145 km off the coast of Florida as a security threat. Put simply, the U.S. would not accept any challenge to its hegemony in the western hemisphere, its immediate periphery.
  • Firstly, the origins of the Ukraine crisis can be traced to NATO’s eastward expansion. NATO took in more countries and pushed its borders towards Russia’s periphery, both the group’s leadership and the new members emphasised that they were a defensive alliance and did not pose any threat to Moscow. They also argued that the former Soviet allies and the (newly born) republics were independent entities that could take sovereign decisions on whether they should join any military alliance or not.
  • Yet, like Kennedy and his national security team did not accept the Soviet argument that the Cuban missiles were for defensive purposes, or that Cuba was an independent country which could take sovereign decisions on whether it should host Soviet missiles or not, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his team did not buy NATO’s similar arguments.
  • Secondly, the Cuban missile crisis was a crisis that was resolved before it actually slid into war, whereas in the case of Ukraine, a full-scale war began on February 24 with the Russian invasion, which makes the crisis even more complex and demands more urgent calls for enhanced diplomatic efforts.

The spiral model:

  • A spiral model is one where parties treat each other with matching hostility, sharply escalating an existing conflict.
  • One way to look at conflicts is to take a moral, normative view of them.
  • Putin is the aggressor, who has violated international laws and norms by invading Ukraine and annexing its territories.
  • However, this normative absolutism is not consistent with the past and present of American foreign policy. The U.S. itself has violated UN norms several times in its interventions abroad and it had no moral qualms in recognising its ally Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights or recognising the disputed Jerusalem, half of which has been illegally annexed by Israel, as its capital.
  • A more realistic explanation is that Washington sees an opportunity in the Ukraine war to weaken Russia by continuing to arm Ukraine.
  • As per this narrative, Russian failure in Ukraine could have political consequences, including challenges to Mr. Putin’s hold on power. So, escalation becomes a policy of choice.
  • The Russians, on the other side, see the U.S. as the main force behind Ukraine, before and after the war began.

Types of escalations:

  • Dirty bomb: A nuclear bomb that releases large quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter.
  • “kamikaze” drones: also called suicide drones, are designed to detonate on contact with the target.
  • Phosphorus bombs: can cause smoke, illumination and incendiary munitions.
  • Kinzhal missiles: hypersonic missiles used by Russia that can travel at more than five times the speed of sound.
  • 9K720 Iskander ballistic missile: These short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) are leading the Russian attacks in Ukraine and can hit targets 500 kilometres away.
  • Vacuum bombs: called thermobaric weapons are filled with explosive and chemical mix and suck in the oxygen from the surrounding the air to generate a powerful explosion which causes supersonic blast waves on explosion.
  • Cluster bombs: scatter small bomblets over a wide area, which can result into a significant number of casualties.
  • Javelin missiles: US-made anti-tank missiles used by Ukraine that guides itself to the target after launch (“fire and forget” system), allowing the gunner to take cover and avoid counterfire, or load a new missile.

Way forward:

  • Unless the leaders break the spiral, the conflict will keep deteriorating.
  • To break the spiral, the parties will have to first look beyond their personalist view of the conflict and try to understand the structural conditions which their rivals operate from.
  • This would allow the leaders to empathise with their rivals, irrespective of their moral positions (what Realists call strategic empathy), and take difficult decisions to make peace.
  • Kennedy and Khrushchev had shown strategic empathy to understand the predicament both leaders were in, and they could make difficult choices. But Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden are in their own silos, blaming each other and blindly pursuing their goals through force, while Ukraine is on fire. The sooner they come out of it, the better for the world.

MUST READ  Lessons from Cuban Missile Crisis

Source:  The Hindu


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