Russian President Vladimir Putin overseeing a missile test at the National Defense Control Center, Moscow, December 20
Russian President Vladimir Putin overseeing a missile test at the National Defense Control Center, Moscow, 2018
Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / Reuters

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stalled and its forces have pivoted to the battleground in the east, the war is entering a new, darker, and more dangerous phase. Mariupol provides a preview of that future. The Vladimir Putin who bombed the Russian city of Grozny into rubble in order to “liberate” it, and who joined Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in razing Aleppo, certainly has no moral reservations about mass destruction. Moreover, the war in Ukraine is now unambiguously Putin’s war, and the Russian leader knows that he cannot lose—without risking his regime and even his life. So as the fighting continues, if he is pushed to choose between making an ignominious retreat and escalating the level of violence, we should prepare for the worst. In the extreme, this could include nuclear weapons.

With mounting evidence that Russian forces have engaged in horrific killings of innocent civilians, the United States and its European allies are facing increasing pressure to intervene in ways that risk widening the war. U.S. President Joe Biden has mobilized a global coalition that is now imposing on Russia the most comprehensive portfolio of painful sanctions the world has ever seen. He has effectively canceled Putin and his supporters, making them pariahs in much of the Western world. Together with NATO allies, the United States is also supplying extensive quantities of arms to the Ukrainians, who are courageously fighting for their freedom. Many Americans, however, as citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, will be asking what more the Biden administration can do. Already, a chorus of pundits and politicians has been calling on Biden to impose a no-fly zone over regions of Ukraine or to transfer Polish MiG-29 aircraft to Kyiv.

What these demands fail to take into account, however, is a central lesson of the Cold War: if military forces of nuclear superpowers should ever be engaged in a hot war in which each is killing or seriously considering choices that could kill hundreds or thousands of the other, the escalation ladder from there to the ultimate global catastrophe of nuclear war can be surprisingly short. The textbook case is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

When a U.S. spy plane caught the Soviet Union attempting to sneak nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba, President John F. Kennedy determined immediately that it could not stand. He confronted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously called an “eyeball-to-eyeball” faceoff, which began with a naval blockade of Cuba and ended with an ultimatum threatening air strikes on the missile sites. Historians agree that this was the most dangerous moment in recorded history. In a quiet moment near the end of those 13 days, Kennedy confided privately to his brother Bobby that he believed the chance that the confrontation would end in nuclear war was “one in three.” Nothing historians have discovered in the decades since has done anything to lengthen those odds. Had that war come, it could have meant the death of 100 million Americans and even more Russians.

Lessons learned in that crisis have informed nuclear statecraft in the decades since. After 60 years without an analogous confrontation, the prospect of nuclear war has become almost inconceivable for many observers. Fortunately, Biden and key members of his administration know better. As they have been crafting their strategy for meeting Putin’s challenge, they know that Russia’s national security strategy includes the use of nuclear weapons in certain circumstances even when the other side has not used or threatened to use them. They have examined Russian military exercises in which Russian forces practice what their doctrine calls “escalate to deescalate,” a doctrine that foresees using tactical nuclear weapons to counter a large-scale conventional threat to Russia and its allies.

Thus, while most observers have dismissed Putin’s dark threat of “consequences you have never experienced in your history” and his putting Russian nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” as mere saber rattling, the Biden team certainly has not. If Putin finds his military suffering a terrible defeat on the conventional battlefield, for example, it cannot be ruled out that he might try to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender by using a tactical nuclear weapon—a lower-yield bomb with nevertheless devastating consequences—on one of Ukraine’s smaller cities. And if the United States were to respond in kind, we could see a game of nuclear chicken even more dangerous than the confrontation over Cuba.

How Confrontations Go Nuclear

How could the dynamics in 1962 have led to nuclear war? Analysts of this crisis have identified more than a dozen plausible paths that could have led to the incineration of American cities. One of the fastest begins with a fact that was not even known to Kennedy at the time. The core issue for Kennedy and his associates was preventing the Soviets from installing operational medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba that could strike the continental United States. They were unaware, however, that the Soviets had already positioned more than 100 tactical nuclear weapons on the island. Moreover, the 40,000 Soviet troops deployed there had both the technical capability and the authorization to use those weapons if they were attacked.

Imagine, for example, that on the twelfth day of that fateful crisis, Khrushchev had flatly rejected Kennedy’s last and final offer to resolve it. Kennedy had proposed a deal in which the United States would pledge never to invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles, which he paired with a private ultimatum threatening to attack Cuba in 24–48 hours if Khrushchev refused. Anticipating a negative response, Kennedy had already authorized a bombing campaign to destroy all the missiles on the island; this was also to be followed directly by an invasion to ensure that any weapons missed by the strikes were eliminated. But as U.S. troops landed on the island and engaged Soviet troops, U.S. commanders would likely have found themselves targets of the tactical nuclear weapons whose presence was unknown to them. Those weapons would also have sunk the American ships that had transported them to the island, and perhaps even hit ports in Florida from which the invaders were coming.

President John F. Kennedy’s map of Cuba showing Russian missile sites, annotated on October 16, 1962
President John F. Kennedy’s map of Cuba showing Russian missile sites, annotated on October 16, 1962
Brian Snyder/Reuters

At that point, Khrushchev would have ordered the Soviets’ 20 ICBMs capable of delivering warheads to the U.S. homeland to be fueled to prepare for launch. Kennedy would then have faced a damnable dilemma. He could have ordered a preemptive attack on the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal—an attack that would likely still leave the Soviets with enough remaining weapons to kill tens of millions of Americans—or he could have chosen not to strike, knowing that he was leaving the United States vulnerable to an attack by the full Soviet arsenal, which could cause the deaths of more than 100 million Americans.

Fortunately, however horrific Russia’s war against Ukraine has become, the risk that it ends with nuclear bombs destroying American cities is nowhere close to JFK’s one in three. Indeed, in my best judgment, it is less than one in 100—and probably closer to one in 1,000. There are two principal reasons why Putin’s invasion has not become a sequel to the missile crisis of 1962. First, Putin has taken great care not to threaten vital U.S. national interests, including by avoiding crossing such redlines as an incursion or attack in the territory of any NATO country; and second, because Biden has been determined from the outset not to allow what happens in Ukraine to trigger a wider war.

Preemptive Restraint

Biden’s response to Putin’s challenge has demonstrated unblinking strategic clarity about American national interests. He understands the real risks that dynamics in Ukraine, if mishandled, could lead to nuclear war. He also knows that the United States has no vital interest in Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO and consequently has no Article 5 guarantee from Washington to defend an attack against it as if it were an attack upon the United States. Thus, for Biden to stumble into war with Russia over Ukraine could be the worst—and indeed, potentially the last—great error in U.S. foreign policy.

In a determined effort to prevent that, as Russian troops surrounded Ukraine, Biden made clear that sending U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine was “not on the table.” In a December 8 press conference, he declared, “The idea that the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia [to prevent it from] invading Ukraine is not in the cards right now.” Since then, the Biden team has repeatedly underscored that point. No matter how heart-rending Putin’s crimes, sending U.S. troops to defend Ukrainians would mean war with Russia. That war could escalate to a nuclear Armageddon, in which not just Ukrainians but also their counterparts in Europe, Russia, and the United States would be victims. In sum, as Biden put it: the United States “will not fight the third world war in Ukraine.”

In 2008, no one on Bush’s security team was prepared to go to war with Russia to defend Georgia.

Biden’s critics in Congress now claim that his caution invited Putin’s invasion. According to Republican Senator Tom Cotton, “Biden’s weak-kneed appeasement provoked Putin.” Had the United States had a strong president like George W. Bush, Cotton and his allies assert, the invasion would never have happened. Counterfactuals are complicated. But in this case, a little applied history goes a long way.

Consider Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. Bush was president, and developments in Georgia were broadly similar to those in Ukraine preceding Russia’s invasion. At the time, Georgia’s efforts to confront Russian-backed separatists were seen by Putin as an unacceptable threat. After the NATO summit that year, in which the Bush administration had attempted to rush Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and failed, an emboldened Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili cracked down on the breakaway province of South Ossetia. When Putin responded by ordering Russian troops to invade Georgia, he certainly had no doubts about Bush’s readiness to send U.S. troops to war. After all, he had seen him dispatch 130,000 troops to invade Iraq in 2003 and tens of thousands more to Afghanistan. Rather than deterring Putin, the evidence suggests that Bush’s bravado served mainly to encourage Saakashvili’s recklessness, which in turn provided the pretext for Putin’s invasion.

As Russian invaders approached Georgia’s capital, the Bush administration faced a further choice. Predictably, some members of the administration, particularly aides in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, called for sending U.S. troops to prevent Russias seizing Georgia. At a special National Security Council meeting chaired by the president, his national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, posed the question directly: “Are we prepared to go to war with Russia over Georgia?” The president then asked each participant at the meeting to offer his or her own answer. As Hadley put it afterward, “I wanted to make people show their cards about a possible military response”—knowing that otherwise some of them might later claim that they were prepared to fight for Georgia but were overruled. As they went around the table, no one, including Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, was prepared to vote yes. The United States did not come to Georgia’s aid, and the war was over within two weeks.

A Precedent with Many Presidents

Instructively, the choices made by the Biden and Bush administrations are consistent with those made by every other U.S. administration that has faced a similar dilemma. When the Soviets blockaded the highway to Berlin in 1948, President Harry Truman rejected his military commanders’ proposal to have U.S. forces fight their way through. President Dwight Eisenhower chose not to send U.S. troops to defend the 1956 Hungarian uprising—a decision repeated by President Lyndon Johnson in Czechoslovakia during the 1968 Prague Spring. Kennedy refused to attack Soviet troops building the Berlin Wall. And when, in 1983, the Soviets shot down a commercial airliner that had mistakenly strayed into Soviet airspace—an attack that killed 52 Americans, including a sitting member of Congress—President Ronald Reagan likewise refused to escalate. In every case, the man with whom the buck stopped was not prepared to risk the survival of the nation for anything less than a clear vital national interest.

Like their predecessors, Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and others in the administration have not only read about what happened in the Cuban missile crisis but have also participated in simulated war games designed to allow them to vicariously experience nuclear danger. They have played the roles of those who sat around the table with JFK, debating choices that they knew could provoke a nuclear attack that could kill their own families. They have reviewed the SIOP, or Single Integrated Operational Plan—the United States’ general plan for a nuclear war, first devised in the early 1960s, which provides a menu of launch procedures and targeting options for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, should it be necessary. Biden and his senior advisors have reflected on the fact that while U.S. strategic nuclear forces can erase Russia from the map, at the end of any such confrontation, the United States would also be gone. They thus understand the profound truth captured by Ronald Reagan in his famous one-liner: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

For decades, U.S. administrations have consistently avoided military escalation with Russia.

Reagan’s two propositions are easy to recite, but hard to integrate into strategic thinking. Even though the United States has the mightiest military in the world, with nuclear forces that could turn Russia into a graveyard, Reagan’s first point reminds us that at the end of that war, Russia would also have completely destroyed the United States. No one could call that victory. This condition—described by Cold War strategists as MAD (mutually assured destruction)—has made all-out war between enemies with robust nuclear arsenals madness. Technology has, in effect, made the United States and Russia inseparable conjoined twins. While either can kill the other, neither can do so without simultaneously committing suicide.

The second half of Reagan’s warning is even more difficult to internalize: that a nuclear war “must never be fought.” However evil and dangerous Putin’s Russia is today, the United States must find a way to defeat it without going to war. During the Cold War, avoiding war with the Soviet Union meant accepting constraints on U.S. initiatives to combat the Soviets that would otherwise be totally unacceptable. These included living for as far as anyone could see with Soviet occupation of the captive nations of Eastern Europe, even as the United States did what it could to undermine support for those Communist regimes, and reaching compromises in which both nations agreed not to deploy certain weapons systems—for example, intermediate-range nuclear forces—that could increase the risk of miscalculations or accidents that could lead to war.

Particularly in the hot air of Washington today, it may be useful to recall that when Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Washington Post columnist George Will accused him of “accelerating moral disarmament—actual disarmament will follow.” The leading conservative intellectual of the time, William Buckley, called Reagan’s INF agreement a “suicide pact.” About such criticism, Reagan wrote, “Some of my more radical conservative supporters protested that in negotiating with the Russians I was plotting to trade away our country’s future security. I assured them we wouldn’t sign any agreements that placed us at a disadvantage, but still got lots of flak from them—many of whom, I was convinced, thought we had to prepare for nuclear war because it was ‘inevitable.’”

War by Other Means

Among the many lessons from the Cuban missile crisis, one may prove particularly important to the Biden administration in the weeks ahead—particularly if Putin finds himself backed into a corner. As JFK said in his most important foreign policy speech, just months after the Cuban missile crisis, “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” If those were the only two options between which Putin had to choose, there is no guarantee that he would pick the former. Although Biden has carefully avoided forcing Putin to that point, events are now moving toward what the Russian leader could see as such a crossroad. If the facts of war on the ground leave him with no alternatives other than losing this war or shocking Ukrainians and the world with a tactical nuclear attack, it would be foolish to bet against his selecting the latter.

To prevent this, Biden and his team should review what JFK did as he saw events moving rapidly toward a dead end. Despite the success of the U.S. naval blockade in preventing the Soviets from bringing additional missiles to Cuba, it had done nothing to stop them readying missiles already there for launch against the United States. Thus, on the final Saturday of the crisis, Kennedy’s advisors told him he had only two options: attack or accept a Soviet missile base in Cuba as a fait accompli. Kennedy rejected both. Instead, he crafted an imaginative alternative that consisted of three components: a public deal in which the United States pledged not to invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles, a private ultimatum threatening to attack Cuba within the next 24 to 48 hours unless Khrushchev accepted that offer, and a secret sweetener that promised the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey within six months after the crisis was resolved. 

In the complicated multilevel negotiations and diplomacy that will be required to create a similar off-ramp for Putin in Ukraine, the United States and its allies will need even more imagination than Kennedy and his advisors did in 1962. But as Biden and his team rise to this challenge, they can find inspiration in JFK’s finest hour.

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