Let’s Not Repeat the Mistakes of October 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis surprised both Kennedy and Khrushchev because neither had adequately thought through how the other would respond to his actions. Each side saw its own moves as purely defensive, while the other side perceived them as offensive. Since the world cannot survive many crises of that magnitude, it behooves us to better understand Russia’s current perspective. As one step in that direction, consider the following article that the Russian news service Interfax carried yesterday under the headline, “USA, NATO Not Planning Attack But Still Pose Risk To Russia:”

Moscow, 20 March: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov believes that the USA and NATO have no intention of attacking Russia in the foreseeable future but the most important thing in military affairs is capabilities.

“You see, it is clear to me that the USA, let alone NATO, has no intention of attacking us. We are being told daily and hourly about the absence of any such intentions,” Lavrov said in an interview to Kommersant FM radio.

At the same time he quoted Otto Bismarck: “In military affairs, the most important thing is not intentions but capabilities”. “I said that I cannot discern any such intentions now. Nor can I see them in the foreseeable future. Life, however, goes on,” the foreign minister said.

In this connection, he recalled that the fourth stage of European missile defence would be completed in 2020, pointing out that “if everything goes ahead the way it is spelt out now, our military experts unequivocally see risks for our strategic deterrence forces in this”.

“Moreover, here is what our American colleagues say when we ask them: we ask, ‘this fourth stage, is it the last one, is the fourth phase the final one?’ They say: ‘No, we have no limitations, the Congress has barred us from limiting this system in any way,’” Lavrov said.

Thus, he said, there could be a fifth and a sixth phase, and it is not known what would be envisaged as part of those stages. “Let me repeat though that even the fourth (phase) is seen as a very serious risk to our strategic deterrence forces,” the Russian minister said.

He said that the US global missile defence system was now being set up, “the European segment of which is being actively developed on a unilateral basis, without even waiting for decisions from NATO, even though it is described as a NATO system; treaties are concluded with Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Turkey and Spain”. “Concrete facts are being created on the ground, as they say,” Lavrov added.

He also recalled that Russia was suggesting setting out on paper some clear guarantees that the system would not be directed against any state in the European region, but in response it was invited to “take their word” for it.

This approach, the minister said, “is at the very least not particularly respectful to the intellectual abilities of Russian military experts and those involved in the defence of the country”. 

Martin Hellman

Further Reading

Handout #6 from my Stanford seminar, “Nuclear Weapons, Risk, and Hope,” dissects the 1982 Cuban crisis and explains how we nearly suffered a repeat in July 2008. All handouts for that seminar are accessible from my courses page, with only the most recent quarter being needed.

My thanks go to the World Security Institute’s Johnson’s Russia List for bringing this article to my attention. If you are interested in hearing what is being said within Russia, it is an invaluable source. While the almost daily list of about 30 items is more than most people can read, I find the Foreign Affairs section at the end of most interest. If you’d like a subscription, contact davidjohnson AT star power DOT net. A donation ($50, $25 for students and others on limited budgets) to WSI is requested, but subscriptions are free of charge.

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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