Could the war in Ukraine go nuclear? | The Economist

Sixty years after the Cuban missile crisis, the world again worries about nuclear war

by UKCHP_Admin

Sixty years ago the world was staring at a nuclear cataclysm. The Cuban missile crisis began in October 1962 when America detected Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. It blockaded the island, and debated invading it. The Soviets yielded, removing their nukes; America secretly removed nuclear-tipped missiles of its own from Turkey. Annihilation was averted.

Memories of those terrifying times are being revived by the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has repeatedly warned that he could resort to nuclear weapons. On September 21st he said he would use “all weapons systems available” to defend the “territorial integrity” of Russia—by implication including all the Ukrainian land he is annexing through sham referendums. ”It’s not a bluff,” said Mr Putin. In response Jake Sullivan, America’s national security adviser, sternly warned Russia of “catastrophic consequences” if it used nuclear weapons.

The world thus faces what may be the worst period of nuclear peril since Cuba, says Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, an American lobby group. Russian commentators have drawn explicit parallels between the crises. Both were caused by insecurity provoked by a rival’s expansion “right to the doorstep of one’s own country: Cuba then, Ukraine now”, writes Dmitri Trenin, a Russian analyst, on the state-owned rt website.

This time, though, things are different in several important ways. The Cuban crisis lasted 13 days. The war in Ukraine is more than 200 days old, and could last for hundreds more. In Cuba the nukes themselves were the crux of the matter. In Ukraine they are a shield to protect a Russian land-grab. And the nature of the threat has changed with Russia’s fortunes on the battlefield. At first, Western officials worried about nuclear escalation resulting from Russian success. If it took Ukraine, might it push further into the Baltic states, or strike at nato depots that were supplying weapons to Ukrainian forces? That could have led to a conventional war, which might have escalated into a nuclear one.

Now the worry is about Russian failures. Ukrainian troops have retaken thousands of square miles of territory; a mobilisation at home has pushed hundreds of thousands of Russians to protest or flee. In the 1960s neither John F. Kennedy nor Nikita Khrushchev, the American and Soviet leaders, wanted a nuclear war. Now, some worry that a flailing Mr Putin might be tempted to gamble that nuclear weapons could help reverse his misfortune.

The Cuban missile crisis was largely about “strategic” nuclear weapons—the biggest sort, designed to wipe out enemy cities far from the battlefield. The question in Ukraine revolves mainly around the non-strategic, or “tactical” kind. These are of shorter range and lower explosive power. (Many are nevertheless more powerful than the atomic bombs used against Japan in the second world war).

America and the Soviet Union once maintained huge arsenals of tactical warheads for use against each others’ armies on the plains of Europe. In the decades after the cold war, nato gave up all but around 200 of its stockpile, concluding that precision-guided conventional weapons could do the job more cheaply and with fewer complications. Russia’s armed forces held on to 2,000 or so. Nuclear weapons can make up for weaker conventional forces. “The power balance matters less than the willingness to use nukes,” says Francis Gavin, a historian at Johns Hopkins University. “That creates an incentive to be irresponsible.”


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