Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 26 February 2022

 The West has no idea how to handle the threat of real war

Sixty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon – yet after staring into the abyss, an essentially stable global order was restored. Today, as Vladimir Putin moves to crush Ukrainian independence, the prospects for a return to global order are far dimmer, imposing choices the West is poorly placed to face.

No doubt, the very real threat of nuclear war enormously upped the stakes in the Cuban missile crisis, increasing the pressure for a resolution to be found. But if agreement was reached, it was also because each side’s objectives were far more readily accommodated within the prevailing global order than is now the case.

Nikita Khrushchev’s aims on May 21, 1962, when he convinced the Communist Party’s Presidium to secretly install long-range nuclear missiles on Cuban soil, were two-fold.

The immediate goal was to bolster Fidel Castro’s regime, deterring an American invasion that Khrushchev expected to be altogether better executed than the CIA-backed landing at the Bay of Pigs, which Castro’s forces had easily defeated.

Khrushchev’s primary objective, however, was to redress the strategic imbalance caused by the Soviet Union’s inability to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could be prepared for launch as quickly and surreptitiously as America’s new solid-fuelled Minuteman.

Locating nuclear-armed missiles within easy striking distance of the continental United States would, Khrushchev assured a divided Presidium, “equalise what the West likes to call the ‘balance of power’ ”, stabilising superpower competition without sinking the USSR’s struggling economy.

As things turned out, Khrushchev’s gamble nearly triggered nuclear war, stoking the charges of “adventurism” which contributed to his dismissal by the Central Committee on October 14, 1964, two years to the day after an American U-2 reconnaissance plane had spotted the recently built launching pads in Cuba.

But while Khrushchev’s decision, made in extremis, to withdraw the missiles was viewed by the Soviet military as a humiliating backdown, the commitments that president John F. Kennedy gave in exchange were not insignificant.

Then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy talk in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Vienna in 1961.

Then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy talk in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Vienna in 1961.

In itself, removing America’s Jupiter missiles from Turkey was merely a gesture: a decision to dismantle the Jupiters, which were obsolete, was already pending. In contrast, the agreement to accelerate the arms limitation negotiations facilitated the conclusion in August 1963 of the ­partial nuclear test-ban treaty, opening the door to a gradual de-escalation in the arms race which reduced the risks each superpower bore in durably maintaining the status quo.

There is, however, little prospect of a similar, globally stabilising exit from the crisis in Ukraine. Today’s world, unlike that of the Cuban missile standoff, is not bipolar; it is traversed by multiple power centres and conflicts. With those conflicts’ fault lines intersecting, concessions in any one conflict impinge on the others, making mutually beneficial solutions difficult to find.

And even if such solutions ­existed, Putin is not seeking to stabilise the international order, as Khrushchev was (however ineptly) trying to do, but to drastically reshape it.

Nothing more starkly reveals the extent of the reshaping Putin hopes to achieve than his claim that Ukraine ought to be considered a Russian zone “of privileged interest”, giving Russia a de facto veto over its democratically determined foreign policy.

That demand is plainly not motivated by concerns about Russia’s territorial integrity, which has hardly been under threat: unlike Khrushchev in 1962, the United States has not positioned nuclear missiles targeted at Moscow near Russia’s frontiers, nor provided Ukraine with other offensive weapons.

On the contrary, the Biden administration made it clear from the outset that it was willing to engage in arms limitation talks, despite the serious compliance issues Putin’s repeated violations of previous agreements, including that on intermediate nuclear forces, inevitably raises.

Rather, Putin’s goal, in demanding a right “of privileged interest” over Ukraine, is to reinstate the 19th century concept of “spheres of influence”, by which stronger powers can suborn otherwise independent countries.

The West has failed miserably in its attempts to deter Putin from pursuing the path of aggression.

The West has failed miserably in its attempts to deter Putin from pursuing the path of aggression.

The origins of that concept are often ascribed, quite erroneously, to the Monroe Doctrine. In reality, the purpose of US president James Monroe’s proclamation in 1823 was not to assert American dominance over Latin America but to prevent Europe’s continental autocracies from attempting to conquer the region’s newly independent, but still fragile, nations.

Far from seeking to bury those nations’ sovereignty, Monroe sought to protect it.

The “spheres of influence” concept Putin has repeatedly invoked is a different matter altogether. Forged in modern form during Tsarist Russia’s southwards expansion, it was adopted by the colonial powers in the scramble for Africa, receiving formal status in the Berlin Conference on Africa of 1884-85 as one of the recognised forms of imperialism, positioned between mere sway over a territory and outright annexation.

It is consequently no accident that it played a central role in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which allocated imperial spheres of influence in Eastern Europe to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, and in the 1968 Brezhnev doctrine that cemented the Soviet Union’s right to intervene militarily in its satellite states.

Simply put, the doctrine’s historical purpose was to entrench imperial domination; its purpose now is to institute a new Russian imperialism at Ukraine’s expense. But there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Putin’s new imperialism will end there: rather, the reconquest of Ukraine is likely to be just the first step on a slippery slope extending first to Georgia, Moldova and Armenia and then to the robustly pro-Western Baltic states. And with that process under way, China’s own neo-imperialism is certain to become even more assertive, as will its determination to control the South China Sea and suborn Taiwan.

All of that has been obvious for some time; but it is equally obvious that the West has failed miserably in its attempts to deter Putin from pursuing the path of aggression.

Considered in the light of the theory of strategic deterrence, that failure is entirely unsurprising. Thus, during the most dangerous years of the Cold War, American strategic analysts distinguished “basic” deterrence – which involved dissuading attacks on the United States itself – from “extended” deterrence, which required dissuading attacks on America’s allies.

Whether Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will actually meet next week remains to be seen Picture Terry Pontikos.

Whether Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will actually meet next week remains to be seen Picture Terry Pontikos.

The Soviet leadership, it was assumed, would understand that any attack on American territory would provoke immediate and devastating retaliation; but as Thomas Schelling, who later won a Nobel prize in economics, influentially wrote, “the difference between dissuading attacks on the national homeland and on ‘abroad’ is the difference between threats that are inherently credible and threats that have to be made credible”.

And the only realistic way of making credible the threat that attacks on “abroad” would induce a punishing response was to demonstrate a capacity to inflict, at a clearly acceptable cost to oneself, costs on an opponent that would be absolutely crippling.

Putin may be a thug – but he certainly grasps the logic of strategic deterrence. He knows, or believes he knows, that the West’s willingness to bear costs for the sake of punishing aggressions that are remote from its citizens’ daily life is far slighter than its grandiose statements suggest.

Yes, drastic sanctions have been promised; but he is convinced they will unravel as the Europeans feel the sting of their consequences. Moreover, even before that happens, Russia’s privileged access to the Chinese market will greatly cushion the blow.

For those reasons, and many others, he can rationally believe that he will get away with it.

But more than mere getting away with it is at work in Putin’s decision to mock the West’s pleas, threats and promises. Rather, it betrays his innermost conviction that brute force, and brute force alone, rules the world.

That is not what the West has taught itself to believe; the challenge today, as Putin moves to recreate Greater Russia, is whether we are capable of relearning so old and ugly a verity.

“We do not want to fight,” President Kennedy declared as the world stared into the nuclear abyss, “but we have fought before. And others in earlier times have made the dangerous mistake of assuming that the West was too soft and too divided to resist invasions of freedom in other lands. Well, those who threaten to unleash the forces of war should recall the words of the ancient philosopher: ‘A man who causes fear cannot be free from fear’.”

Six decades later, it is Putin who seems fearless while the West, which thought real wars were a thing of the past, stumbles among the rubble of its illusions.

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