60 years after Cuban issile crisis, another nuclear threat
A reference to Russian nuclear capability was made by President Vladimir Putin in March, soon after embarking on the special operations in Ukraine. Is the world inching towards Armageddon in October, given Moscow’s nuclear threats?
The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which brought the United States (US) and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to the brink of a nuclear war, began on October 16. Sixty years later, there is a disturbing sense of déjà vu: Is the world inching towards Armageddon in October, given Moscow’s nuclear threats? A reference to Russian nuclear capability was made by President Vladimir Putin in March, soon after embarking on the feckless special operations in Ukraine. Moscow repeated the nuclear threat last month to retrieve lost ground in a war that has gone awry.
This signal from Moscow has led to US President Joe Biden cautioning his country and the world on October 6 that for the “first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of a nuclear weapon – if, in fact, things continue down the path they are going.” He added, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
A day later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky revealed that, according to his sources, Russian officials have begun to “prepare their society” for the possible use of nuclear weapons. But Zelensky added a contradictory note, saying that he did not believe Russia was ready to use such a capability.
The Cuban missile crisis began on October 16, 1962, and the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between then US President John F Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khruschev ended on October 29, with assurances provided by both sides to assuage the insecurity-cum-strategic anxiety of the other. (This was also when China used this window to launch its surprise attack on India to wrest territory along an undemarcated border, and that intractable issue continues to fester even today).
The US and Soviet leaders managing the 1962 crisis had a personal experience of World War II. They knew the enormity of the devastation wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Maybe that’s why, after a predictable spike in bilateral tension, both superpowers blinked at the appropriate moment and averted what could have well become World War III with unimaginable radioactive consequences.
Rationality was deemed to have played an important part in the decision-making on both sides, though in retrospect, one could conjecture that plain luck also played a role in the modus vivendi arrived at. The Cuban missile crisis became a valuable learning experience for both the nuclear superpowers of the Cold War, and nuclear deterrence was stabilised in a manner wherein both sides remained “vulnerable” to the other.
This theoretical formulation was taken from US economist Thomas Schelling (1921–2016), who argued that accepting mutual vulnerability reduced the probability of a nuclear war. Thus was born the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), and the acronym has dialectical overtones, for global security was predicated on mutual destruction.
As the Russia-Ukraine war smoulders, can the world take some comfort from October 1962 and hope that a nuclear crisis will be averted again? The outlook is muddy, for the current global techno-strategic environment is different from the dyadic US-Soviet binary, which prevailed in 1962, and the “rationality index” of neither political leadership can be taken for granted.
While it is empirically valid that the world has not breached the nuclear taboo since Nagasaki, the Doomsday atomic clock unveiled in 1947 is now 100 seconds to midnight – the metaphorical synonym for the nuclear apocalypse and the end of the world as we know it.
This bleak setting was made in January, and it may be presumed that the Russian shadow in Ukraine would have brought this to the dire two-digit estimates.
The probability that an adversary may use nuclear weapons in a given exigency and assessing the risk entailed is the raison d’ etre of national security teams, and the academic/analyst/historian plays the role of a gloomy pathologist. What is germane is that while nuclear deterrence theory and the formulation of policies are highly refined and involve game theory, psychological mapping, a study of strategic culture et al – the contrast between theory and practice is often inversely proportional.
From the original single nuclear power of 1945 (US), soon joined by the former USSR (1949) - the world now has nine nuclear weapon-capable nations. Their insecurities are spread across a wide bandwidth, and Russia has just set a precedent where a nuclear superpower (it has the world’s largest arsenal at 5,977 warheads, of which 1,458 are strategic) has found it necessary to invoke its nuclear quiver to redress what is essentially a long-festering territorial dispute.
Whether the nuclear weapon provides assured “security” to a nation or assuages inchoate “insecurity” remains moot. India, which has often raised its voice to caution the world about the nuclear Damocles sword, has been muted apropos the war in Ukraine. Perhaps, there is a compelling case now for Delhi to join Berlin and Tokyo and reach out to President Putin to avoid Armageddon and arrive at a modus vivendi.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal
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