A Second Cuban Missile Crisis?

For over a year I have been warning that our neglect of Russian concerns about our deployment of a missile defense system in Eastern European could precipitate a second Cuban Missile Crisis. My recent paper, entitled “Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence,” stated:

And, today, we are in the process of deploying a missile defense in Russia’s backyard (Poland and the Czech Republic) over strenuous Russian objections. A possible Russian response would be to threaten deployment of a similar missile defense in Cuba, much as our Jupiter missile deployment in Turkey was the stimulus for Khrushchev deploying his Cuban missiles [Burlatsky 1991, page 171].

Usually I like to be proved right, but not here. Unfortunately, two days ago a Washington Post article reported:

MOSCOW, July 21 — Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons could be deployed to Cuba in response to U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, a Russian newspaper [Izvestia] reported Monday, citing an unnamed senior Russian air force official.

and, just yesterday, another report stated:

The United States would not tolerate a reported Russian proposal to station long-range nuclear bombers in Cuba, the nominee to become Air Force chief of staff said yesterday. If Russia acts on such a plan, “we should stand strong and indicate that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America,” Gen. Norton Schwartz said at his confirmation hearing. “I would certainly offer the best military advice that we engage the Russians not to pursue that approach,” he added.

I am not saying that this Russian threat is imminent and strongly suspect that it is intended to get us to pay attention to the way they view our deployment — something threatening close to their borders. But if we continue to ignore Russian concerns, things are likely to get worse.

NOTE: Several days after this email was sent, the Chicago Tribune reported that “the Russian Defense Ministry on Thursday used some unusually harsh language in dismissing the reports as false. … The stories may simply be an awkward attempt at sending shock waves through Washington by using claims that would evoke memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought Washington and Moscow to the brink of nuclear war.” Or, the stories could have been intended, as noted above, to try and get us to understand the Russian concerns.

The risk analysis approach that I have been advocating for defusing the nuclear threat has the potential to illuminate this and other risky behavior before they lead to disaster. I hope you will bring this dangerous situation and our web site (http:nuclearrisk.org) to the attention of all who might be interested.

This is not an indictment of our missile deployment, but rather of our doing it in a manner which neglects legitimate Russian concerns. While the threatened Russian reaction is deploying strategic bombers to Cuba, would we react much differently if they threatened to deploy defensive missiles in Cuba? I suspect we would have some of the same concerns they have expressed, including fear that offensive weapons could be disguised as defensive ones.

Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University

If you missed any earlier emails to the group, they are at http://nuclearrisk.org/resources.php along with other resources.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website: https://anewmap.com.
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