In October 1964, Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny removed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev from office, supposedly because of Khrushchev’s “harebrained schemes.” Most have assumed that this referred to Khrushchev’s plan to turn Siberia into an agricultural heartland, but I have always believed it actually referred to his attempt to slip missiles into Cuba. Given how that plan ended, it would be a logical fit. It is therefore fascinating that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last week that he’s ready for another Cuban missile crisis if the United States decides to deploy medium-range missiles in Europe. Given his comments, it’s important that we understand how the crisis unfolded and its relevance, if any, to what’s happening today.
During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy sought to discredit the Eisenhower administration by claiming that the Soviet Union’s missile capabilities exceeded those of the United States. The claim was a lie; the U.S. had a substantial lead in deployed missiles and was rapidly deploying nuclear submarines. The U.S. also had an enormous advantage in strategic bombers; the Soviets had only a small number of Bear strategic bombers, which were far inferior to the American B-52s.
Indeed, the U.S. would have an overwhelming advantage in a nuclear exchange. That, combined with its satellite imagery capabilities, meant the U.S. could theoretically launch a first strike on the Soviet Union’s relatively small missile force and render it useless. Theory and practice are very different things. Still, in the Soviets’ worst-case scenario, the U.S. might launch such an attack and force a Soviet surrender. The Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile capability was limited, and the Soviets needed an interim weapon that could guarantee a counterstrike against the U.S. regardless of how successful a U.S. first strike would be. The solution was to put intermediate-range nuclear weapons within range of the United States, and the only possible location was Cuba.
The whole strategy rested on smuggling the missiles in and making them operable before the U.S. could detect them. It was in many ways a harebrained scheme because not only was detection possible but the U.S. response was utterly unpredictable. The U.S. might determine that other installations existed and launch a sudden and powerful attack to destroy them. Moreover, the need for this deterrent was dubious. True, the U.S. had a strategic advantage over the Soviets, but using it in a first strike would be an enormous risk. Given the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy didn’t have much confidence in U.S. intelligence, and certainly not enough to bet the house on a first strike.
Robert F. Kennedy and others have portrayed the crisis as a showdown between two equal powers that was managed with diplomatic brilliance to avoid a disastrous end. However, transcripts of meetings held by the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, which advised John F. Kennedy during the crisis, tell a very different story (see Sheldon Stern’s “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory” for more details). Certainly, it was a serious episode, but it did not put humanity in danger of nuclear annihilation.
In terms of the nuclear balance, the Soviets had a very weak hand. That’s why they tried to slip missiles into Cuba. The U.S. was running heel-and-toe surveillance on Cuba so the chances of the missiles not being detected by U-2s or human intelligence were low. Once detected, Khrushchev had to back down for the same reason he tried the maneuver in the first place: The Soviets were weak.
The Kennedy narrative of the crisis was that Khrushchev capitulated just before a U.S. invasion. In reality, both sides understood that, unless Khrushchev was nuts, the game was over the minute Kennedy announced the blockade of Cuba following the discovery of Soviet missiles. Indeed, Khrushchev did back down in return for a clever offer to withdraw obsolete U.S. missiles from Turkey and Italy (though the offer was only revealed at a later date). The fact was that Khrushchev had no choice but to capitulate.
Few have acknowledged, however, that Khrushchev won a huge point in his handling of the crisis. For the heroic narrative of the Kennedy brothers to work, they could not admit the truth – that U.S. nuclear capabilities far exceeded those of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had to be treated as a peer with enormous strength that was compelled to back down not by superior force but by the skills of the negotiators. If they acknowledged that there was no missile gap, and that the Soviets could not match U.S. nuclear power, then the crisis would no longer be seen as a stunning moment in history.
The Kennedy administration needed the heroic tale and therefore had to give something of extraordinary value to Khrushchev: the myth that the Soviet Union could stand toe to toe with the United States on nuclear capabilities. (The Soviets would become peers to the U.S. later on, but they were not in the 1960s.) The Soviets wanted this acknowledgment for three reasons. First, the American public would force caution on U.S. politicians. Second, other powers, especially those in Europe, would question the reliability of the U.S. security umbrella. Third, the Soviet public, enthralled by Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, would believe they were witnessing another Soviet triumph. Yes, the Soviets conceded, but they could write that off as simple prudence. Every self-congratulatory memoir written by in the U.S. about the crisis reinforced the notion that the Soviet Union was a nuclear peer. Obviously, no one in his right might would risk nuclear annihilation over such trivia, but then no one actually did.
I do not know if this is what Khrushchev intended or if it was the result of unexpected political needs in the U.S., but I suspect the latter. Khrushchev likely wasn’t clever enough to have planned this scenario the way it played out. But regardless, Kennedy kept the missile gap story in place and conceded equality to the Soviets.
Which brings me to Putin’s recent comments on the Cuban missile crisis. At the moment, Russia is in no way a military challenge to the United States. Any U.S. medium-range missiles stationed in Europe would be meant as a deterrent or possibly used in case of a Russian incursion into Ukraine. It’s unlikely tensions there would escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. And that’s what makes it so attractive to Putin. Putin wants a showdown with the U.S. because it could end with the U.S. treating Russia as a dangerous peer and U.S. allies increasing their importance by maximizing the Russian risk. At a time when your own hand is weak, having your opponent declare you dangerous and powerful is a huge gift. The Soviets received this gift once before. Putin, faced with economic problems at home, a lackluster performance in Ukraine and a growing force to Russia’s west, may be looking to receive it again.
Khrushchev didn’t fully understand the game. But Putin does. He must take the world to an imaginary nuclear brink that will force a negotiation, if in nothing but appearance. The world will breathe a sigh of relief when it ends. And every deputy at the U.S. National Security Council will dine out for the rest of their life on how close the U.S. came to the abyss and how brilliantly the U.S. worked to avoid war with a fearsome superpower. And with that, the thing Putin has always decried, the geopolitical disaster of 1991, can be reversed. But considering that Khrushchev was ousted for such harebrained schemes, the downside could be political oblivion.