Conflict could prove worse than Cuban missile crisis without action now

·4-min read
Ukrainian soldiers patrol near the frontline near Ruski Tyshky, Ukraine - John Moore/Getty Images Europe
Ukrainian soldiers patrol near the frontline near Ruski Tyshky, Ukraine - John Moore/Getty Images Europe

There is much to be commended in the Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Shipments of lethal military aid and the harsh economic sanctions imposed on Russia are both welcome, and vital. Alongside the ferocious defensive response of the Ukrainians themselves, these measures are already helping to deny Putin victory. But there are also some worrying signs that the gravity of the crisis, and its implications for our behaviour, have still not been fully grasped.

There is widespread debate about possible escalation, in particular Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This is of course a huge concern. But what ought to be receiving more attention is the danger inherent in the basic structure of the crisis itself.

Arguably the single most important factor shaping outcomes in crises between nuclear armed adversaries is the balance of interests at stake. And from a crisis management point of view, the more there is an asymmetry of interests, the easier it is likely to be to navigate a crisis to a safe outcome. The crises in both Berlin in 1961 and in Cuba in 1962 appear instructive in this regard.

In Berlin, despite Soviet and Western military forces facing off against each other, the Western powers ultimately acquiesced in the building of the wall. They recognised that the Soviets, worried that the exodus of people leaving the GDR could undermine the viability of the East German state and trigger the unravelling of Soviet control over the whole of eastern Europe, had interests at stake that dwarfed the Western concern with freedom of movement in the city.

In Cuba the roles were reversed. The presence of the missiles on the island was not central to Soviet interests.  For policymakers in Washington on the other hand, they were perceived as a direct threat to US national security. The subsequent blockade of Cuba was sufficient to get the Soviets to back-down.

The danger inherent in the current crisis is that no asymmetry of interests between the adversaries is obvious. Putin miscalculated badly in believing there was one and has now been disavowed of that belief. We are, as a consequence, in a crisis in which both sides perceive fundamental interests to be at stake, both are showing resolve, and both appear willing to take calculated risks to coerce the other to do what they want. This is the most difficult and dangerous kind of crisis to manage and is the fundamental reason why this crisis is every bit as dangerous, if not more so, as Cuba.

In three important areas, the implications have not sunk in.

First, the concern with a possible escalation of means is not being matched with enough concern over possible escalation of objectives. If both sides couch their objectives in ways that are seen as directly threatening to the vital interests of the other, it is more likely that both will be willing to escalate rather than accept defeat. The policy implication is that in a crisis like this, restraint is as important as resolve.

Our central objectives must be to ensure the Russian invasion of Ukraine fails; that Ukraine has the capacity to vigorously defend itself and not be forced to negotiate from a position of weakness; and that the European security order remains in-tact. It is not to destroy the Russian military, to seek regime change in Moscow, or for Ukraine to join Nato (unless its own government and people wish it and existing Nato members agree).

Second, insufficient emphasis is being placed on measures to maintain control of events. Deliberate decisions by adversaries to take military action against each other are only one part of the danger. Avoiding inadvertent violence is equally important.

Military rules of engagement should be reviewed and tightened to ensure they serve a crisis management purpose and are not left too open to local commander interpretation. It would be wise to place more national military assets under unified Nato command to ensure greater consistency of control of military posture and operations. And since small allies can and sometimes do drag larger ones into wars, the US should be exerting maximum leadership over allies to ensure they are all part of the same coherent strategy, and no individual member can take action with dangerous consequences for the rest.

Third, the recent fiasco of US intelligence officers leaking their role in the targeting of Russian military assets in Ukraine demonstrates that crisis communications have been insufficiently gripped. Not only do Western objectives need to be limited and clear, they also need to be communicated clearly and consistently so they are understood, and not misunderstood, in Moscow. Too many people from too many governments are describing current Western objectives in different ways: The US Secretary of Defence talks of ‘weakening’ Russia, the British Foreign Secretary of driving Russia out of Ukraine entirely, including from Crimea.

The goal of crisis management must be to both protect our vital interests and to avoid direct military confrontation with Russia. The measures just outlined are not sufficient to achieve that objective, but they are now necessary.

Malcolm Rifkind and Dr Ian Kearns are both members of the ELN Board.

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