Putin’s Fear of Retreat

How the Cuban Missile Crisis Haunts the Kremlin

Sixty years ago, the White House and the Kremlin peacefully resolved the most dangerous nuclear crisis of the modern era. Neither superpower had wanted the dispute over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba to end in war, but both sides threatened the use of violence to defend their interests. It isn’t just the coincidence of the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis that has led some observers to search for lessons from that long ago clash to help de-escalate the current war in Ukraine. From the moment he announced the invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that this conflict could evolve into a nuclear one. “Whoever tries to interfere with us,” he said, “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” Putin repeated this threat after the Western world and its Asian allies rushed to help Ukraine, and as the war began to go badly for Russia. On September 21, he warned that the Kremlin was prepared to use “all weapons systems available” to protect Russia’s “territorial integrity” and its “independence and freedom.” Since no NATO countries had threatened Russian territorial integrity or its independence or freedom, this statement seemed like a deliberate nuclear threat or, at best, a dangerous bluff.

Both Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden are old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis, and Biden has already revealed that he is thinking about the crisis as he manages the U.S. response to Russia’s aggression. At a political fundraising event in New York in October, Biden shared his worry that the threat of a nuclear “Armageddon” is the greatest it has been “in 60 years.”

But the two leaders appear to have different understandings of the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis. In Biden’s view, and that of many American scholars, the crisis was largely solved through mutual respect, a shared desire in avoiding war, and smart and empathetic negotiation that allowed both sides to save face. “We are trying to figure out, what is Putin’s off-ramp?” Biden said at the fundraising event. He appears to see himself in the situation that President John F. Kennedy faced when he had to help Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev climb down from the possibility of overt conflict and nuclear war. “Where does he find a way out?” Biden asked of Putin. “Where does he find himself in a position that he does not only lose face but lose significant power within Russia?”

Putin, who nearly two decades ago signed off on the declassification of the Politburo (then known as the Presidium) minutes from the Khrushchev era, doesn’t share that version of events. As I discovered while writing two books with the Russian historian Aleksandr Fursenko, who was the key player in the release of those materials, it was Khrushchev who made the first move to retreat. Only two days after Kennedy gave his dramatic speech demanding that Moscow remove its nuclear missiles from Cuba, Khrushchev gathered his Presidium colleagues to tell them that to avoid war they had to accept Kennedy’s demand. Facing humiliation, Khrushchev also tried to build an off-ramp for himself that would maximize his ability to save face in the socialist world and prevent a war with the West.

Americans tend to remember the peaceful outcome of this effort, but Russian leaders then, as now, understood the humiliation that backing down before the United States signified. In the end, Khrushchev’s efforts to repackage the events of October 1962 as some kind of victory failed. Two years after the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev would be removed from office by his colleagues on the Presidium for incompetence. Whereas Biden sees the importance and promise of statesmanship in the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, Putin unsurprisingly sees only weakness.

Where Biden sees statesmanship, Putin sees only weakness.
Just last month, Putin left no doubt of his view of the missile crisis and Khrushchev’s retreat when answering a question from the Russian journalist and foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov during an extremely revealing three-hour session at the Valdai Discussion Club. Referring to the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis—“Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the main day of the Caribbean crisis, the climax, when, in fact, we decided to retreat”—Lukyanov asked Putin to place himself in Khrushchev’s shoes. The president refused to. “No way,” he said. “I cannot imagine myself in the role of Khrushchev, by no means.”

Putin had no wish to be identified with a Kremlin leader who backed down. And then he revealed more. He was prepared to lead negotiations, as Khrushchev did with the United States, but not about ending the current crisis in Ukraine. Like Khrushchev in 1962, he was concerned about the state of the strategic competition with the United States, but unlike him, he was in no rush to sit down with U.S. officials to cool nuclear tensions. “In December last year,” he told Lukyanov, “we proposed to the United States to continue the dialogue on strategic stability, but they did not answer us. . . . If someone wants to have a dialogue with us on this matter, we are ready, let’s go for it.”

Although there are no surface similarities between this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago—the first involves the conventional invasion of a neighboring country by a superpower; the other, the use of an allied country thousands of miles away to threaten a superpower with nuclear weapons—it is telling that Putin and Biden have different takeaways about the quality of leadership in that crisis. To get a sense of their differences, it might be helpful to summarize what is known from Russian and U.S. sources about how Kennedy and Khrushchev found—and took—an off-ramp from a nuclear crisis, de-escalating a confrontation that might have triggered an epochal war.

HOW TO CONJURE AN OFF-RAMP
The Cuban missile crisis was the unintended consequence of Khrushchev’s effort to achieve in one fell swoop three very ambitious Cold War goals: altering the international balance of power (the Soviets were behind in the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles) by scaring the United States with missiles nearby, protecting Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and forcing a new settlement over the control of West Berlin. Khrushchev’s harebrained scheme involved transporting medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles by ship to Cuba, while somehow managing to avoid detection by NATO. Once the missiles arrived, he would announce their deployment in a theatrical presentation at the United Nations in November 1962.

This plan began to unravel on October 22, when Kennedy announced, in a major speech covered worldwide, that the United States had discovered the placement of medium-range Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Hours before the address, having received some warning that the Americans might know what he was up to, Khrushchev feared that Kennedy would initiate an immediate attack on Cuba. Instead of an attack, Kennedy declared a naval blockade of the island. Khrushchev had no intention of removing the missiles that were already in Cuba, but he also wanted to avoid a clash that could lead to nuclear war. To reduce the risk of war, he decided on October 23 that Cuba-bound ships carrying the intermediate-range missiles would turn around and not test the U.S. blockade.

Meanwhile, Khrushchev hoped for signs of U.S. weakness or opposition from U.S. allies to the blockade. They did not emerge. Instead, Soviet intelligence picked up evidence that U.S. officials were preparing reporters to join an armada that would strike Cuba and that the United States had raised the alert status of its strategic weapons. Fearing perilous escalation, Khrushchev gathered his colleagues on October 25 and said that it was time to find a way out of this mess. The Soviet leader didn’t use the term “off-ramp,” but that’s what he wanted. He also wanted to avoid humiliation. “This is not cowardice,” he told his colleagues. “This is a fallback position. . . . It is not worth forcing the situation to the boiling point.” Perhaps he could achieve, at least, one of his three goals. The next day he sent Kennedy a private letter offering, in a roundabout way, the removal of the missiles in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.

The crisis didn’t end there, but it was on the road to resolution. It took Kennedy and his advisers a day to understand what Khrushchev was offering. Meanwhile, hungry for a better way to save face, Khrushchev came up with a new demand, linked to another of his goals. In addition to pledging not to invade Cuba, he wanted the United States to remove a visible symbol of NATO’s threat to the Soviet Union: the U.S. intermediate-range missiles housed in Turkey. From the KGB, Khrushchev already knew that these missiles were about to be replaced with Polaris submarines, but he wanted to extract another tangible U.S. concession, however hollow. On October 27, Kennedy agreed to the first condition in writing and the second secretly, by way of a meeting between his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. As Soviet records arguably indicate—historians debate this point—Khrushchev gathered his colleagues to accept the terms of Kennedy’s letter before he even heard about what the president’s brother had told Dobrynin. The Kennedy brothers promised to remove the missiles in Turkey but, in return, insisted that the Soviets could never crow about it.

NO RETREAT
It is no wonder that Russians, especially Putin, might see the Cuban missile crisis as a failure for the Kremlin. Khrushchev upended his entire plan to create a Soviet missile base in Cuba in return for very little: a verbal promise from a U.S. president not to invade the island and the removal of soon-to-be obsolete U.S. missiles that the Soviets were not allowed to discuss publicly. Equally telling for an autocrat like Putin was the fact that the debacle in Cuba would later be cited as a reason for Khrushchev’s dismissal in 1964.

In the interview with Lukyanov, Putin defended his annexation in September of four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine and dismissed as hypocrites those in the United States and Europe who support Ukrainian sovereignty. “We see that complex demographic, political, and social processes are going on in Western countries,” he said. “Of course, this is their internal affair. Russia does not interfere in these issues and is not going to do it—unlike the West, we do not climb into someone else’s yard. But we hope that pragmatism will prevail and that Russia’s dialogue with the genuine, traditional West . . . will become an important contribution to building a multipolar world order.”

What constitutes the “genuine, traditional West”? Putin was no doubt referring to the Republican Party and other right-wing parties in North America and western Europe. He had clearly expected that the U.S. midterm elections would change the political climate in the country and weaken U.S. support for Ukraine; in the wake of a surprisingly strong showing by Biden’s Democratic Party, this prospect now seems much less likely. But unlike Khrushchev at the height of the missile crisis, Putin doesn’t yet seem convinced of U.S. and European resolve. In any case, Putin rejects any analogy comparing him to Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis because he isn’t yet prepared to give up any of his key goals, even though their pursuit has precipitated a seemingly insoluble crisis of the Russian president’s own making.

The off-ramp in 1962 did not emerge out of U.S. statesmanship. It grew first from Russian fear, and then pragmatism. Perhaps the recent loss of Kherson, in southern Ukraine—and the Democrats’ relative success in the midterm elections—will force a pragmatic reappraisal in this Kremlin. Until a few weeks ago, Putin would have found intolerable the idea of retreating from the only Ukrainian provincial city his forces had managed to capture. And yet now he has. That withdrawal, however, does not signal any Russian desire to lower the temperature. Putin’s audacious annexation of the four provinces (including Kherson) makes selling a wider strategic retreat to the Russian people very difficult. Unlike Khrushchev, Putin has raised the stakes of confrontation as his gambit began to unravel. It will be harder for him to fall back—and save face. He also doesn’t seem to want an off-ramp, at least for now. Biden and those calling on the White House to pressure Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow ought to keep this difference in mind. The war in Ukraine is not like the Cuban missile crisis, and Putin, as he’ll gladly tell you, is no Khrushchev.

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