Avoiding a Repeat of the 1962 Cuban Crisis

I highly recommend Prof. Rajan Menon’s article in The National Interest, Avoiding a New ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ in Ukraine. I’ve attached a few key paragraphs below my signature line, and encourage you to read the full article. This fits well with the risk analysis approach I’ve been recommending for analyzing nuclear deterrence and reducing the danger that it might fail. 

Earlier posts I’ve written making a connection between current events and 1962’s Cuban crisis include Heading for Another Cuban Missile Crisis? This October 15, 2011 post showed how our missile defense system, which is still a sore point with Russia today, bears a dangerous resemblance to  the nuclear-armed missiles we deployed in Turkey in 1962 – an action which played a significant role in Khrushchev’s decision to deploy similar missiles in Cuban.

Combining the Ukrainian crisis with missile defense and other areas of Russian-American tension creates a potentially lethal brew that demands clearer thinking. We need to reexamine the assumptions underlying our world view and correct any that are found wanting. My thanks to Prof. Rajan for helping us do that.

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Martin Hellman


The war in Ukraine has already created the most dangerous confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cuban Missile Crisis. If Obama scales up arms supplies to Ukraine in response to Minsk II’s collapse, the United States and Russia will be engaged in a military test of wills—on the latter’s doorstep. In 1962, geography favored Washington; Moscow had to withdraw. In 2015, proximity will permit Russia to bring additional men and materiel to the battlefield far faster than the United States can bolster Ukrainians units, let alone create an effective Ukrainian army.

Besides, Russia simply has far more at stake in Ukraine than the United States and its NATO allies do, and that means that Putin will take risks that the West simply won’t.  It would be morally reprehensible and strategically obtuse, therefore, to encourage Ukrainians to conclude that the West will match Russia move for move. Ukrainians can be forgiven for getting precisely that impression from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s May 18 press conference in Kyiv.

While the “arm Ukraine” chorus persists, it hasn’t yet explained what the United States should do if Putin escalates rather than desists. If he ups the ante, Washington will face two choices, neither of them good: backing off or doubling down. Taking a momentous step based on hope, and without an effective and feasible countermove at hand in case the opponent fails to do what you expect, amounts to reckless folly—the more so since, during this crisis, Putin hasn’t done what the West has assumed he would.


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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