The Cuban Missile Crisis provides a lesson to resolve the Ukraine crisis

Associated Press

Is there a way to build on John F. Kennedy’s approach to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in reducing the risk of a Russian attack on Ukraine in coming weeks?

President Biden and other Western leaders have been doing most of the right things so far in this crisis — strengthening Ukraine’s military even as we pledge to keep our own forces out of any fight (since Ukraine is not a U.S. treaty ally); threatening tougher and tougher economic sanctions against Russia; and coordinating closely with allies so they do the same. Indeed, we should further strengthen the economic threats, as energy expert David Victor and I have argued, by pledging to work with Europeans to get Western countries off Russian oil and gas within a few years, should Russia actually invade.

However, there is still one missing piece, in what might be called a Henry Kissinger or John F. Kennedy multidimensional approach to crisis management: Show strength and resolve on the one hand, while offering the potential adversary a way out of the crisis that saves some face.  Kennedy threatened war and carried out a naval blockade to prevent the Soviets from strengthening their nuclear-armed missile force in Cuba, but he privately promised Premier Nikita Khrushchev that he would eventually pull U.S. nukes out of Turkey if the Soviets removed their weapons from Cuba. Kennedy also pledged not to invade Cuba if the Soviets met his terms. Since the U.S. weapons in Turkey were obsolescent, and the appetite for invading Cuba in the United States was low, these were modest and reasonable concessions.

An analogous approach today might keep our economic threats, and commitment to current NATO allies, on the table while offering Russian President Vladimir Putin a dialogue on Ukraine’s future. This would not be a concession to his threats and demands, because we would not unconditionally promise to deny Ukraine membership in NATO forever. The dialogue would look for an interim concept to shore up Ukraine’s security without NATO membership that we could all accept in the short term. That could be offered publicly. Privately, we would tell Putin that if any such concept emerged and became effective in protecting Ukraine (as well as Georgia and other states in Eastern Europe), NATO likely would be content to live with that kind of system indefinitely. NATO membership for Ukraine no longer would be needed.

This approach would make a virtue out of what is already a reality: Ukraine is not going to be offered the chance to join NATO anytime soon. In 2008, when George W. Bush was president, the alliance promised Ukraine and Georgia that they someday would be invited to join NATO — yet with no timeline or interim security guarantee. That was a regrettable half-pregnant compromise if ever there was one. It effectively painted a bullseye on the backs of Ukraine and Georgia; Russia attacked Georgia a few months later and attacked Ukraine in 2014. 

We needed a better plan then. Recognizing as much, no one has seriously promoted the idea of expediting Ukrainian or Georgian membership since 2008 — until Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky did so last year. Perhaps that is why Putin is forcing the issue now — though the moral blame is all on Russia’s side, not Ukraine’s, of course. 

A new agreement might, for example, seek to restore the understanding of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States, Russia and others promised to guarantee Ukraine’s security. Tragically, Russia later violated those commitments. This time, given past Russian violations, verification would be needed and Russia would need to pull out its forces supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine as a starting point. For its part, NATO would agree to an indefinite freeze on consideration of Ukraine’s possible membership in the alliance — making de jure what is already de facto. 

We could signal Russia an additional benefit through quiet diplomacy: If these new guarantees worked well, there might never be a need for Ukraine to join NATO. Even if the United States changed its mind in the future, other NATO countries might veto any decision to offer membership to Ukraine, had Russia’s behavior been acceptable in the interim. Since NATO makes such decisions only by consensus, this should be an appealing approach to Putin. If Ukraine had become secure from Russian attack in the meantime, Ukrainians might not mind the arrangement themselves (though they admittedly would take some time to adjust to new expectations).

If Russia ever violated the agreement, our pledge not to offer Ukraine and Georgia membership would dissolve.  

The Crimea issue presumably would have to be finessed in these conversations, since Russia won’t give it back. We would live with that reality, for now, without blessing or officially recognizing it. 

Let’s face it, Ukraine isn’t going to be in NATO for a long time , if ever. So, rather than have this crisis continue in Europe over an abstraction, why not try to resolve it? 

To be sure, some in the Republican Party would be tempted to criticize Biden for weakness should he follow this path, especially after the Afghanistan debacle.  But the American people don’t really want to see war in Europe. If Russia invades Ukraine, Biden will have a hard time maintaining the claim that he is a strong and effective leader on the world stage. By contrast, the American voter seems unlikely to punish a principled peacemaker. 

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in the foreign policy studies program at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy. He is the author of the 2017 book, “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

Tags Budapest Memorandum Cuban Missile Crisis Joe Biden NATO Russia-Ukraine conflict Vladimir Putin

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