Vladimir Putin’s strategic crisis in 2014 sure looks a lot like John F. Kennedy’s in 1962

President John F. Kennedy signs the proclamation of the “Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Weapons to Cuba” on Oct. 23, 1962. The order imposed the U.S. naval blockade on Cuba that Mr. Kennedy had announced during his televised address the night before. Below: Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Sun News bloviator Monte K. Solberg.

“Good evening, my fellow citizens,” President John F. Kennedy said grimly on Oct. 22, 1962. “This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba.

“Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island,” the U.S. president said. “The purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”

President Kennedy went on to explain that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were each “capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.”

Worse, he explained, the Soviets appeared to be installing sites for larger missiles capable of hitting anywhere in the continental United States, as well as locations in Canada and South America. Obviously – however it was to be resolved – this situation could not be allowed to continue for long.

“This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base by the presence of these large, long-range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” the president stated.

“Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small,” President Kennedy continued in what may have been the most important passage in his speech.

“We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril,” he said. “Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.”

Ergo, the Soviet rockets had to be removed by Cuba, or the United States would go to war.

I have been pondering this important speech and the thinking it represented in the context of the present U.S. and Canadian response to the so-called crisis in Ukraine, and the childish and belligerent rhetoric about it by our wedge-politics-obsessed Conservative leaders in Ottawa and their echo chamber at the Sun News Network, the CBC and the other official and semi-official state news outlets.

This is likely only to get worse now that the predominantly ethnic Russian population of Crimea has overwhelmingly voted to rejoin Russia – as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hypocritical and nearly hysterical sputtering yesterday illustrates.

Monte Solberg, a former Parliamentarian turned Sun News commentator wrote in the Sun newspapers earlier this week that “the Ukrainians should have long ago armed up and joined NATO.”

As we have seen, one of the key issues that led to President Kennedy’s speech during the Cuban Crisis of 1962 – not long before which the revolutionary government of Cuba had armed up and for all intents and purposes joined the Warsaw Pact – was how close Cuba was to Washington, D.C.

It’s just over 1,800 kilometres from the Cuban capital, near which some of the missiles were parked, to the U.S. capital. It’s estimated that it would have taken a missile like the ones the Soviets had installed in Cuba just 13 minutes to reach Washington.

The Americans believed the proximity of these powerful weapons made a first “decapitation strike” against the American leadership far more likely – since the flying time from Cuba to Washington was so short – potentially getting around the concept of “mutually assured destruction” on which great power nuclear strategy rested then and now.

While it was not so clear at the time, the general consensus of history now that we’ve discovered the truth about the “missile gap” seems to be that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was bat-poop crazy to take on the Americans in their own back yard. (Premier Khrushchev may have been suffering from a similar state of mind when he gifted the predominantly Russian Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1954.)

So if you accept that President Kennedy’s concern was legitimate, and his response, while extremely risky, was probably justified, you have to wonder how else Russian President Vladimir Putin is supposed to view the developing strategic situation in Ukraine today.

The distance to Moscow from the Ukrainian capital Kiev is 756 kilometres, considerably less than that from Cuba to Washington – a calculation that is little changed despite the passage of 52 years. A ballistic missile launched from Ukraine would reach Moscow in about six minutes.

There may be no American strategic missiles in Ukraine – yet – but there are certainly nuclear-capable U.S. Air Force units now in the region, most recently F-15 fighters sent with much publicity to Poland and Lithuania.

Likewise, Ukraine has not yet joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as Mr. Solberg suggests it should have, but some of its nearby neighbours have.

I dropped Mr. Solberg a line and asked him if these strategic considerations put the Ukraine crisis – or at least Canada’s and Sun News Network’s 1960s-style Cold War crisis rhetoric – into a different context for him.

Perhaps he gets a lot of email, but so far Mr. Solberg hasn’t bothered replying.

Thankfully, under the potentially volatile circumstances and apparent inability of certain elements of the U.S. state to stop pushing the Russians, President Putin’s responses have been pretty restrained so far, at least compared with the options President Kennedy publicly considered in 1962.

For the moment at least, the fight seems to have switched to the economic front, a war of sanctions and counter-sanctions that U.S. and Canadian politicians and their media echo chambers seem prepared to wage to the last Western European natural gas consumer.

Well, it’s better than all-out war, I guess, but you have to ask what flavour of Kool-Aid the clowns at Sun News Network are drinking. Grape, by the sound of it.

As for the Harper government, it’s never seen a wedge issue it wouldn’t exploit, even at the risk of a planetary catastrophe.

Given that, if Mr. Solberg’s strategic insights are a reflection of the geopolitical thinking of the Harper Government he not so long ago served, we should all be truly frightened.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca

9 Comments on "Vladimir Putin’s strategic crisis in 2014 sure looks a lot like John F. Kennedy’s in 1962"

  1. Jim Clarke says:

    I haven’t figured out what to think of this whole Crimea thing, but I’m pretty sure a referendum or election result with 95% of the votes on one side is suspicious. I can see why almost all the “ethnic Russian” Crimeans might vote that way, but also why the other Crimeans might be unwilling to vote at all.

    It’s really hard to see who among the Crimeans, or even the Russians or the Ukrainians, deserves more sympathy, and it’s especially hard to see what the best final result might be.

  2. anonymous says:

    One thing is for certain. The Pillsbury Doughboy™ of Canadian prime ministers should not be interfering in sensitive geopolitical situations.

  3. Bruce A says:

    Geo-politics is a concept that has fallen by the wayside. Has anyone from the Pundit’s Brigade heard of it other than the writer? It’s about democracy. Yet, “The Parliamentary Press Gallery is pushing back against the Harper government’s unprecedented and sweeping control over access to government officials and information”.

    Yet, we have Andrew Coyne saying:

    “At a minimum, we should immediately bulk up forces in NATO member states in the region; and, as soon as possible, admit Ukraine and Georgia as members. The trip wires must be laid out in plain sight, so that there can be no doubt as to the consequences if Russia crosses them”.

    Anyone care to share a foxhole with Andrew?

    Or Jeffery Simpson with this observation:

    “It is easier, of course, to be wise after the fact than before it. But it would have been helpful if, before the Afghan mission began, Canada and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had known more about the country, its history, its warring ethnicities, its dangers and its impossibilities. Today, we are wiser after the fact, which is how things usually evolve in war. As Otto von Bismarck once observed, never enter a war without knowing the end game. In the Afghanistan case, NATO never understood its end game”.

    Wisdom lasts until The Next Big Thing Comes Along.

    It’s time the West and the jingoistic/cheer leading media to accept that ‘The Great Game’ is back on. The trouble with fools and gasbags is they’ve never had a near-death experience. Kerry and Baird’s knowledge seems limited to playing Risk in a college dorm while under the influence of hormones and alcohol. Knowing that Canada’s foreign policy and media is reduced to “painted faces, foam fingers and air horns” is not reassuring as Bob Rae has pointed out.

  4. Tom in Ontario says:

    Maybe the Ukraine will take Mr. Solberg’s unasked for advice and join NATO. Wow. Then, should NATO declare war on Russia and if Canada as a member of that organization is bound by the treaty to join in, will Monte and his friends at Sun News hoist rifles and rush to the Crimea to battle the Rooskies?

    Old men start wars and young men and women die in them. Remember Afghanistan. How old are you, Mr. Solberg?

  5. V. Jobson says:

    That complete and utter idiot Rob Anders is making war-like noises, embarrassing the less-insane Michelle Rempel:

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/military-action-might-be-needed-against-russia-mp-rob-anders-says-1.2575556

    • Lars says:

      Well, as one of his constituents, let me be the first to say that I am willing to have Rob Anders sent immediately to Ukraine, and I will not hear of him being allowed back until he has not only solved the crisis there to the satisfaction of all involved, but can show how he did so.
      Actually, even if he does satisfy these conditions, they’re welcome to keep him. No, really, we insist.

  6. ronmac says:

    The Globe and Mail has just announced that a readers poll has picked VE Day as its most memorable front page over the last 170 years.

    VE Day, May 8, 1945, commemorates the defeat of Nazism in Europe. Meanwhile, Harper is off to Ukraine this week to shake hands with the neo-Nazis running the “government” in Kiev. Welcome back.

    Do you ever have those mornings, when you are suddenly awakened by a bad dream, only to realize your life is far more terrifying than any nightmare?

    • ronmac says:

      The Svoboda Party, one of the extremist fringe groups, now holding some key miniterial posts in the new gov’t in Kiev, openly celebrates its World War 2 heritage and the role it played in the killing of thousands of Jews in Ukraine. “One bullet, one Jew” was the motto of the day.

      It’s party logo, the “wolf’s hook” cross, was also used by the 2nd SS Panzer Division, considered to be one of Hitler’s better fighting units.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIlk6K2-9io&bpctr=1395091243

  7. Daniel says:

    > So if you accept that President Kennedy’s concern was legitimate, and his response,
    > while extremely risky, was probably justified, you have to wonder how else Russian
    > President Vladimir Putin is supposed to view the developing strategic situation in Ukraine today.

    Thanks a lot for this article! It seemed obvious to me that Putin’s actions now must be compared to Kennedy’s actions back then, and I have been searching over internet to find anyone doing that – and unfortunately there is almost none. Just your paper and one more, but you give a much more detailed and fair analysis. It Is scary to see that almost everybody in the world misses the point or pretends to be blind. So, thanks again :)

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