Over the last few months, there has been a lot of loose talk from President Joseph Biden and others comparing the Ukrainian crisis with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Lately, that talk has died away. There may be many reasons why, but the comparison has proven to be both inaccurate and misleading.
First, we should remember that the Cuban conflict erupted when the United States government exposed the clandestine shipment of Soviet missiles to the island through CIA surveillance photographs; in the Ukrainian crisis, however, Russia publicly invaded Ukraine without any pretense of secrecy. Second, in the Cuban situation, there was a direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow; in the Ukrainian struggle, the confrontation between these two countries has so far been indirect. Third, the missile crisis lasted 13 days with no casualties. The Ukrainian war has now gone on for almost 10 months without any clear end date and thousands of people have been killed. Fourth, then UN Secretary-General U Thant remained neutral during the Cuban crisis. On the other hand, UN Secretary-General António Guterres immediately eschewed neutrality and openly denounced Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Fifth, U Thant involved the UN in negotiations from Day 1 whereas in the Ukrainian invasion, Guterres waited weeks before pushing the UN to intervene.
Finally, in the Cuban showdown, the leaders of the US and the USSR both used intermediaries — mainly U Thant — to communicate a desire for a settlement, while in today’s hostilities, Biden and Putin are simply not talking.
Despite these differences, a few similarities exist between the two. Certainly, the worldwide drama is the same in both instances. And no one disputes that the Soviets/Russians triggered each crisis by launching surprising, unprovoked military actions that were never really anticipated by the US or its allies. Plus, the military encounters importantly each took place within each nation’s presumed geographic sphere of influence — Cuba within the US sphere and Ukraine within the Russian sphere. And in both instances, the possibility of a nuclear confrontation was always present. In Cuba, the nuclear stakes were self-evident. For Putin, however, issuing menacing threats has been the game — though he moderated them, more or less, because of a vociferous global backlash against him, remarkably, even from his putative soulmate, President Xi Jinping of China, and former friend, Prime Minister Modi of India. Just last week, though, Putin hinted that if the US acts more aggressively in the future, he might revise his nuclear doctrine against pre-emptive strikes.
Finally, in both emergencies, the Security Council did not play a role because Russia exercised its veto power blocking any UN involvement.
Still, the Cuban missile crisis may curiously provide a way toward an eventual settlement of the war. Remember, in 1962, the UN helped lay down a path to a resolution of the Cuban hostilities by helping to persuade Washington to agree to never invade the island again as well as give up all its missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union’s removal of its missiles from Cuba.
Now, in 2022, the UN could take similar steps by nudging both parties toward a similar deal. It already has intervened on three occasions so far in the Ukraine war — rescuing Ukrainians trapped under the Mariupol steel plant; reopening grain shipments to Africa and elsewhere from three of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports; and sending UN nuclear inspectors to the Zaporizhzhia power plant. One possible accord, much discussed, would be for Ukraine to consent to never joining NATO in exchange for Russia’s withdrawal from all of Ukraine, including Crimea.
However, nothing will happen until both sides are finished with fighting. Only then will a common UN negotiating platform for both countries be helpful. Still, the UN’s enduring presence provides a possible off-ramp for a face-saving exit from the war.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the UN intervening to end the war in Ukraine?
Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.
Cuba is 90 miles from the United States while Ukraine is 5100 miles from the United States. Geez, I wonder which one is more important? yet we seem to be sending all our money to defend the one on the other side of the world.
Author provides wrong information in this article. Cuban missile crisis was started by USA. It stationed its nuclear mid-range rockets in Turkey, and USSR replied in kind. Eventually, this crisis was settled in the USSR favor. USSR removed its rockets from Cuba, USA removed its rockets from Italy and Turkey, AND promised to not invade Cuba. USA lost in this conflict.
Stephen, this is a very useful article, thank you.
Agreed, Mr Guterres cannot be the impartial broker as he has openly aligned with the US.
I fear you have given up too easily for a negotiated settlement, difficult though it may be. The UN should relentlessly try to find common ground in even the most impossible situation. To say, as you do, that we should wait for possible negotiations till both sides are finished fighting is defeatist.
Finally, Russia giving up Crimea in exchange for a pledge from Zelensky not to join NATO, is a nonstarter. A pledge can be easily withdrawn; giving up territory cannot be reversed without a war. US, under President Trump, torpedoed the Iran deal, which was a multilateral treaty commitment.