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Invasions, threats and Russian nuclear warheads: 1962 to 2022


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The Conversation

Pablo Pérez López

Full Professor of Contemporary History. Director Scientist at Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra

Soviet military commander and Minister of Defense between 1957 and 1967 Rodion Malinovsky was born in Odessa in 1898. He fought at Stalingrad and was placed in command of the armies that drove the Germans out of Ukraine. Stalin appointed him Marshal that same year. His political commissar in Stalingrad had been Nikita Khrushchev.

In 1962 Khrushchev was at the head of the Soviet Union and Malinovsky was his Minister of Defense. One sunny morning in May of that year, the Soviet leader confided his plan to the minister: "Why don't we put a hedgehog in Uncle Sam's underpants," Nikita Khrushchev asked.

In spite of the civil service examination he found in the Politburo, Khrushchev carried out his plan: the USSR sent missiles with nuclear warheads to Cuba, installed ramps for their launching and transferred to the island some 50,000 soldiers of its army. The Cuban government, headed by Fidel Castro, who had initiated the rapprochement with Moscow through Raul Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara in 1960, was exultant. Any threat of invasion by the United States would now face a formidable response capacity.

On October 14, 1962, a U.S. Air Force plane obtained photographic evidence showing part of the "hedgehog" to the Kennedy administration. Two days later, the president convened his executive committee and considered how to respond.

The blockade of the island of Cuba

The military response was chosen: a bombing that was in doubt whether it should be surgical or massive. Part of the presidential cabinet was frightened and pressured to lower the tone of the response. They opted for a blockade of the island which was called "quarantine" with the pretense that it would not be seen as the act of war that it was.

On the 22nd, the Soviets received the news. The complicated elaboration of a response began. Meanwhile, the U.S. armed forces began maneuvers in Florida that could be preparation for an invasion and were taken to the highest level of immediate alert, which would mean the outbreak of a nuclear war.

Khrushchev's "bluff" to the United States.

It seems that Khrushchev was not aware of the riskiness of his sharp gamble until he was faced with the risk of American missiles starting to fly towards Moscow. Until then he had skillfully handled the nuclear challenge as a "bluff" in front of the Americans. He realized too late that he had gone too far and could effectively provoke a nuclear war with all its disastrous consequences.

The two sides were looking at the precipice of a war that would have a lot of self-inflicted damage, but neither the fear nor the vertigo of the moment could guarantee that it would not happen. Rather, it gave the impression that it was on its way to happening almost irremediably.

A convoluted long-distance negotiation then began, culminating in a agreement on the 28th: the USSR would withdraw its missiles from Cuba in exchange for a US commitment not to invade the island and, without being made public, the dismantling of US missiles in Turkey.

Two years later, in October 1964, the politburo removed Khrushchev from his functions. Among the harsh accusations made against him, mostly on domestic policy, were some related to the Cuban crisis: his irresponsible and adventurous attitude had provoked a very dangerous crisis of unforeseeable consequences and had led to the deterioration of Soviet influence in America.

A parallel with the current status

The parallels with the current status in Ukraine are numerous and interesting, with a predominantly reverse view. The invader is now Russia, the external containment force, NATO.

The Ukrainian rapprochement with the West has been a growing trend since the country's independence in 1991. Russian influence, on the other hand, has never been negligible, but it has been decreasing. The Kremlin's attitude, initially tolerant, became increasingly suspicious until it turned hostile towards the West at the end of the first decade of the century. Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 meant an accentuation of that hostility. Official Russian nationalism became more strident and anti-Western or, as Putin would say, anti-Anglo-Saxon.

In 2014 Russia decided to cross the red line: in an underhanded way, through those "green men" without insignia that everyone identified as Russian troops, it violated the borders it had pledged to respect in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. The West reacted with rather timid sanctions. The action of force, camouflaged as "no war" initiated a muted confrontation that has lasted eight years.

On February 22, 2022 a new "special military action", a full-blown invasion of Ukraine following threatening military maneuvers, put the world in a dilemma as to how to respond to the challenge.

Russia's military effectiveness in question

The response has been an intense Ukrainian military resistance with Western support that has shown that Russian military effectiveness is part "bluff". Russia could lose the war. Faced with such a scenario, its dilemma is again resource to nuclear force, this time to sustain aggression.

It has gone much further than it did in Cuba. No one has installed nuclear missiles in Ukraine, on the contrary, they were withdrawn in exchange for a commitment to respect its borders which Russia has violated. The country has been invaded, forcibly deprived of its sovereignty over part of its territory with the threat of razing it to the ground if it does not consent.

This has long ceased to be a threat. It is more reminiscent of Castro's insane insistence in 1962 to use nuclear weapons against the US military as soon as possible. Khrushchev did not allow it, focused on reaching a agreement, avoided war and, dismissed, died in his bed. Malinovsky died as Minister of Defense. Kennedy was assassinated a year after the missile crisis.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

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