Ukraine War: Putin’s nuke threat & Biden’s Armageddon prophecy

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By Shubham Kumar

New Delhi, October 12: The US President Joe Biden was overheard at a fundraiser recently, saying “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis is the trending point of reference for the west in this regard. Likely linkages have been drawn between the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the Cuban Missile Crisis. While some like David Ignatius, a noted American commentator, have argued for imitating Kennedy’s statesmanship, others have drawn semblance. Interestingly, the realist and the Russians seem to draw a reference to the crisis as well.

Cuban Missile crisis and the current conflict in Ukraine relate to the two global powers who have, primarily, shaped the narrative on these events. While Russia is not Soviet Union, it surely bags the hard power to endure fashionable tales of a multipolar world. The implications of a nuclear annihilation, in 1962, and the current geopolitical upheavals are for the world to endure. A revisit of these events from a novel perspective, preferably non-white, is warranted and is precisely attempted here.

Great Power Politics and the inherent tendencies of perceived superpowers produce commonality between the events that are separated by years. United States of America and the erstwhile Soviet Union are ‘Superpowers’ who have traditionally been wary of loosening their grip on neighbouring region or the ‘spheres of influence’. Recently, Putin, after annexation of territories from Ukraine, enlightened the world that his nuclear threats were not a bluff. Russian doctrine advocates nuclear deployment when its territorial integrity is at stake. In this light, the referenda have drawn a lot of strategic attention globally. Similarly, Kennedy, in 1962, declared that any nuclear attack, from Cuba, targeting any county in the western hemisphere would be dealt as an attack by USSR on the USA.

Several thinkers of Cuban origin argue that Cuba had functioned as an imperial outpost for the American enterprises and interests. Removal of Fulgencio Batista and the revolutionary rise of Castro infuriated America just as Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, irritates Russia. Cubans recall that whenever the grip of American imperial interest weakened, intervention was exercised by the Superpower. Russia, too, has been directly engaged in the bordering Ukrainian regions with the strategic Crimean annexation showcasing its efficacy.

The perceived spheres of influence and the unspoken right of regulating the neighbouring regions are intrinsic to the nature of superpowers. Naturally, the spheres are bound to collide at a juncture and a pawn emerges therein while Cuba was the battlefield for America and the Soviet Union, Ukraine seems to be the newer front. These fronts or pawns have a common feature. In debates of the powers and their global narratives, Cuban and Ukrainian people have become a background character in a story that was originally theirs.

In Cuba of 1962, only a few officials could grab the seriousness of the situation and fewer were able to shed the binders of ideology. Cubans say that regular citizenry was kept ignorant of the gravity of the crisis. Russians, today, have a regulated media wherein the President has termed his misadventure as a ‘special operation’.

Media has had an interesting role in the conflicts naturally. In 1962, the heads of America and Soviet Union would communicate famously via media. Russian radio had a bigger role than many individuals in the Cuban crisis. Cuban crisis, it is now popularly argued, stemmed from miscommunication. Similarly, in his final bid to communicate concerns President Biden had to rely on American media. Headlines in major American newspapers sent a message to Russia that nature of deployment and planning was known to the western world. The disclosure of covert intelligence reports, in the current conflict, signal exhaustion of all channels for a dialogue. Further warfare, in both contexts, reveal a limitation with regards to the intelligence agencies and the apparatus. Strength of soviet troops was severely underestimated by the American intelligence in 1962. Russian intelligence tsars have been blamed for incorrect assessment and even misleading Kremlin in the Ukrainian battlefront.

While Great Powers rally for their pre-eminence, the world watches with concern. Most of the nations, like India, rightfully refrain from reading the events to script a movie. In realpolitik, there is hardly a righteous hero or a murderous villain. The correlations of Cuban Missile crisis and ongoing Ukraine conflict reveal that natures of great power politics remain the same over the years. America looks at Ukraine to regain its role which dwindled with a forgetful Afghan escape and prevalent notions that it ‘lacks the will’ to lead. Putin, on the other hand, wishes to establish the Russia as it stood as an empire. Aspiring powers clashing for dominance over the years go well with a French phrase – The more things change, the more they stay the same.

(Author is interning with the Public Policy Research Centre)

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