On Saturday, October 27, 1962, I was a third-year law student eagerly anticipating a date that evening and the world was gripped by the distinct chance a nuclear war would break out between the Soviet Union and the United States – possibly incinerating me, my date, and both countries.
Five days earlier JFK announced on television that the Soviet Union had installed nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba and that his administration would quarantine Cuba by sea to prevent reinforcement of the ballistic installations. Russian ships and submarines came closer and closer to Cuba before Nikita Khrushchev, the then-premier of the Soviet Union, ordered them back. Unknown at the time, Fidel Castro had unsuccessfully urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States and the crewman of a Russian submarine held out from launching a nuclear torpedo at the U.S. in the false belief World War III had already started. By adroit statesmanship on both sides – and blind luck – the sleepwalkers woke up minutes before going over the cliff.
Anyone who lived through the Cuban missile crisis recalls the helpless feeling of doom at the doorstep. This contemporary crisis has the same sleepwalking feel. The tribal positions harden, the forces of conflict gather, and the march to war goes increasingly on autopilot while events risk slipping out of control. Aside from Tucker Carlson, with whom I often disagree, the major media have almost uniformly refused to examine or analyze the Biden administration’s refusal to negotiate about the absolute right of Ukraine to join NATO despite Russian concerns. Is it enough to hope that President Biden or his advisors will have the same level of empathetic intelligence and flexibility as JFK or that Putin is not the reckless man his KGB review revealed?
As the adage goes, history may not repeat itself but it does rhyme. The Cuban missile crisis arose primarily because the Soviet Union feared encirclement by the United States, while the U.S. was determined to protect its sphere of influence. If the Russians were to send troops to South America to play tit for tat again, as they have threatened, the U.S. would understandably have to respond. The parallels to the Cuban missile crisis are palpable, and it would be a nightmare repeating itself.
Ultimately, a back door deal ended the Cuban crisis. The United States withdrew missiles from Turkey and promised not to invade the island while the Soviet Union dismantled its military foothold. While heated rhetoric filled the media, saner heads worked behind the scenes to hammer out a compromise. When push came to shove, the bromides about state’s rights and alliances yielded to realism.
The media chatter usually starts with the assumption neither side can yield on Ukraine’s theoretical right to become a NATO member. After years of passively watching NATO expand eastward, the Russians under Putin have suddenly sprung their no-membership demand. Mikhail Gorbachev could have limited NATO’s eastward advance at the time of the Soviet Union’s breakup by codifying James Baker’s “not one inch forward” strategies into a binding document, but he didn’t.
Moreover, it is puzzling why Putin risks a war he may not be able to win. Putin and his followers believe that Ukraine is a close relative to Russia and far more favorable to them, but facts on the ground would say otherwise. Most Ukrainians favor a closer relationship with Europe – their 2014 Revolution of Dignity was started by their government’s refusal to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU. Still, why would Putin try to control Ukraine’s membership to NATO when it is still only an indeterminate possibility?
Meanwhile, the United States maintains that Ukraine as a sovereign country has the right to join NATO. This is a truism, but so is the idea that NATO has a right to not admit nations into the alliance. Surely not every nation in the world will be admitted to NATO simply because they desire membership. The decisions made by Ukraine and NATO will depend ultimately on how the two separately perceive the benefit of Ukraine’s membership according to their respective self-interests. Russia demanding that Ukraine cannot join NATO was met with the ambivalent rejoinder of President Biden that “it remains to be seen” whether Ukraine will meet the criteria for membership while at the same time refusing to consider negotiating Ukraine’s membership.
If Ukraine’s admission would so clearly benefit NATO, why is there not a more ringing endorsement of Ukraine’s application? The problem with this tepid stance is it could either be interpreted as an illusory promise of membership to the Ukrainians or an unnecessary provocation to the Russians which doesn’t satisfy either the Ukrainians or the Russians.
If the benefits of Ukraine’s membership are so contingent and theoretical, why then the non-negotiable position by the United States? How does one conclude that a hypothetical prospect of Ukraine joining the alliance automatically outweighs a red line drawn by Russia on the matter of Ukrainian membership? If NATO’s position is that the Ukrainians should be satisfied with a membership decision at some undetermined time, then NATO should at least probe whether the Russians would accept a fifty-year or longer delay before NATO will consider the admission of Ukraine. Similar timelines were used in the Iranian nuclear deal. Let the Russians take the onus of rejecting reasonable counteroffers to their blanket refusal to allow Ukraine to join NATO.
President Biden has also indicated his limited degree of interest in Ukraine by promising the American public he has “no plans” to introduce American troops into that country to resist Russian forces. Instead, his administration will rely on economic sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine even though the Brookings Institution has concluded that economic sanctions by the United States often harm itself and rarely deter the target of the sanctions. If sanctions fail to bring Russia to its knees, what then?
The administration has also warned that it will not come to the rescue of Americans refusing to leave Ukraine when and if the Russians invade. That says to everyone that not even an invasion of Ukraine is worth a war between the United States and Russia. But once the inexorable machinations of war gear up, words mean little. Would President Biden really refuse to rescue Americans caught up in a Russian invasion once the public clamor arose for him to do something?
Yesterday, the TV news reports variously reported that Russian troops on Ukraine’s border had been removed, or maybe not, or maybe had both been removed and added with an uncertain net result. President Biden settled the media confusion in a TV update of the situation to the American public. He stated that Russian troop removal has not been verified and that an invasion remains “a possibility.” The cat-and-mouse strategy of Putin seems designed to keep NATO and the United States off balance.
President Biden’s address on Tuesday evening was essentially a rigid reiteration of his prior position that the United States will not negotiate the admissibility of Ukraine into NATO but does want negotiations The president repeated the threat of unspecified sanctions if there is an invasion – even if it means higher gas prices in the United States. His speech was further hypothetical warning that the United States will defend NATO’s territory and protect the U.S. against cyberattack. The difficulty is that these hypothesized warnings and forecasts leave Putin the option of wrong-footing the Biden administration by taking some unanticipated action short of or different from the conjectured danger.
It appears the Russian and American positions are irreconcilable when it comes to the core question of Ukraine’s right to join NATO. Each country is painting a red line and the two red lines are getting closer to a dangerous intersection. One hope in this deteriorating situation is that German Chancellor Scholz and Ukrainian President Zelensky are playing down the talk of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. At one point Zelensky even called it a “dream.” However, there is a small sign of hope. On Tuesday, Putin decided “to partially pull back troops” from military postings near Ukraine, which was interrupted by some as a sign that Moscow might be stepping away from the threat of an invasion.
But nothing is for certain in this ever-evolving situation. Russia and the United States were graced with a second chance in the Cuban missile crisis to avoid destruction. Third chances are not guaranteed.
Michael J. Polelle
Michael J. Polelle is an emeritus professor of law from the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. He was a Fulbright scholar in Germany from 1959-1960. He is also the author of two novels, The Mithras Conspiracy (2019) and American Conspiracy (2021). His pen name is M.J. Polelle and his website is www.mjpolelle.com