The Cuban Missile Crisis Was Easy Compared to What’s Coming

During the Cold War crises, both sides had fairly easy off-ramps. Today there are none.

Sean Lee
8 min readApr 17, 2022
Destroyed Russian Tank — source image Eurasian Times

As the war that almost no one thought possible enters its next dystopian phase, it seems fair to assume almost no one yet grasps what has really happened. Up until the day of the invasion we all heard and read the seasoned experts opine on why it wouldn’t happen. Or, once it started, that it would end quickly; or when it didn’t end quickly, that Putin was looking for an off-ramp and Ukraine would give him one. Then when Ukraine offered him one and he refused, he was only positioning for a better one. Seasoned experts had always seen Putin as the 3d chess player, a master of risk-benefit calculus. He only blusters with nukes; he doesn’t mean it. And so here we are today, Easter Sunday of 2022 and the expert discussion is all about where his red line is. And that, by the way, Russian military doctrine sees nuclear missiles as just big artillery.

All of which is to say we the non-experts and really every human being on the planet should probably take a few moments to opine ourselves on where we are. That goes for us in the West, but also East, North and South of this pale blue dot, our only home in the universe. And we should do it earnestly, because it seems we are failing miserably to do that.

For starters, the great majority of the world’s governments remain on the sidelines for their own risk-benefit calculus (China and India are only the largest, but it’s most of the emerging world). But even those governments and peoples thoroughly on Ukraine’s side are convinced they ultimately have bigger concerns. When Western experts say the idea of sanctions is to “hurt the other side more than ourselves”, what they really mean is: genocide is terrible, but hey,GDP is GDP. Here in Germany, experts worry that cutting off Russian gas would be “catastrophic” for the economy. To which one can only respond: if they think they know what catastrophic means, they should take another hard look at Mariupol. And what is even more disheartening: none of this seems to put these governments out of step with their voters.

Part of our failure to grasp the current situation is no doubt just human nature. As a rule, we (including and perhaps especially experts) are not good at learning when the world shows itself to be not what we thought. In fact the whole 21st century has been such a lesson. Yet we wise homo sapiens seem to never miss an opportunity to ignore that (does anyone even remember the pandemic that’s killed 18 million people?)We’re much better at keeping our heads down, looking after our own and expecting the bad thing to just go away. But to be fair, the other part of our failure is that to fully grasp what is really happening now, we’d have to already know the future. Perhaps more to the point; whether or not there will be a future.

Yes, that is alarmist and consciously so. If there was ever a time when alarmist is not a pejorative but the only rational response, now is a pretty good time. Our continuity bias of course always assures us of the contrary. That history has already known countless terrible wars, even a few wars to end all wars. Even the old Cold War, the first war that could have really ended them all, had many close calls that worked out well. Humankind got through all of them, and so we will get through this. That at least is the natural framing of current events if we think that’s what human history teaches us.

In any world other than the Spring of 2022, I would even agree with that. But with an unhinged sociopath on his own mission from God, rattling his nuclear saber with his back obviously against the wall, historical continuity is the last thing we should assume. Mathematics seems the more relevant discipline here. In the 77 years since technological civilization became, in the words of Robert Oppenheimer, “the destroyer of worlds”, civilization has had a damn lucky streak. And math teaches us that lucky streaks eventually run out.

To compare today with the old Cold War is to misunderstand how it operated. It was a terrifying time to live through with many harrowing moments. But in fact, whenever Armageddon was nigh there were always easy off-ramps with little real pain for either side to take. Sometimes it was technical issues, like a software glitch or a wandering missile. Overall, the history of Cold-War-close-calls makes for fascinating, scary bedtime reading. But the main point was that neither side really wanted war. So much so that when it came down to it, each side was willing to gamble the other side didn’t want war either. Sometimes a deal had to be struck, but it was always straightforward. The deal that solved the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was a relatively easy swap: missiles in Cuba for missiles in Turkey. To resolve the Able Archer crisis in 1983 NATO simply had to call off a war gaming exercise.

None of this framework exists today. Whatever his intention before the invasion, Putin has now become, as Julie Ioffe says, a prisoner of his own feral propaganda. His media has stoked the Russian people so far that “now they want blood”. The narrative now is that if Putin loses in Ukraine, then Putin and the Russian state lose everything. On this point everyone — even apparently the Russian people, now agree. As veteran German journalist Christoph Wanner reports, even Russians initially against the war now tie their fate to Putin’s. “This is no longer Putin’s War. It is Russia’s war.” (author translation) The only off-ramp is now literally victory or death. And for the whole country. If we’re looking for a historical model for where we are, it’s not the Cold War. It’s 1939 with nukes. For what it’s worth, Russian propaganda after the sinking of the Moskva is already calling this WWIII.

Goebbels fires up the people in the Berliner Sportspalast “Do you want total war?!”
Putin fires up the people in a Moscow stadium, March 18, 2022

If all this alarm sounds like a call for the West to back off; to reduce military support to Ukraine, it’s absolutely not. On the contrary, I earnestly hope the West goes all in with all the big gun hardware it can and do it faster than yesterday. And not just the small arms infantry equipment the West has been sending. I’m vociferously in the camp that says to hell with worrying what will provoke Putin further. He’ll be provoked whenever he feels like it. The big risk is not in antagonizing him, but in not stopping him fast enough. So give the Ukrainians everything but NATO boots on the ground or in the skies.

Why I personally draw the line at NATO troops is a bit more involved than just not wanting to immediately start WWIII. First of all, if the Ukrainians had the right hardware they wouldn’t need NATO anyway. Second, as Beau of the Fifth Column has pointed out (1), the Ukrainians will be in a much better negotiating position afterwards if they do this themselves. But most importantly to my mind is something that will sound very strange here. My personal best hope for the world hinges on what the Russian military does next.

We’ve learned a lot since February 24. First, that the entire Ukrainian population knows how to fight and will never stop. Whatever initial thoughts they may have had about ceding territory for peace, those thoughts died in places like Bucha and Mariupol. They’ll now fight with their bare hands and teeth to keep Putin from claiming victory.

For both better and for worse, Putin nevertheless still thinks he has a conventional path to victory. To get there, he will huff and puff and pound and froth; slaughter as many civilians as he can; destroy city after city and fire inept general after general. But at some point he’ll finally realize the Ukrainians aren’t giving him a conventional path. At that point, he’ll have to choose: clear the battlefields with his nuclear artillery or dig his own grave. Again, for the Russian military doctrine he grew up with, nukes are just the Clausewitzian continuation of politics by other means. Is there really a reasonable doubt about what he’ll choose?

All of the above seems almost mathematically inevitable. And were he to do it now, his chain of command might still be intact enough for someone on the battlefield to actually push the button for him. So the only real open question is how long the Russian chain of command holds. If the West can’t control Putin’s state of mind or the orders he gives, it might be able to help the Ukrainians influence what his army does with those orders.

That to me is essentially the world’s best and almost only hope. A Russian army so thoroughly exhausted and defeated on the battlefield that it revolts. Fortunately, we know that’s not an absurd hope. (And not the first time the Russian army has “voted with its legs” as Lenin put it in 1917). Russian army morale has been crumbling for weeks. There is too much evidence of it, too many images, communication intercepts and consistent reports for it all to be a mirage of Ukrainian propaganda. And it should be no surprise. This is what you get with conscripts and mercenaries who have no idea why they are fighting, especially when ruled by a corrupt, inept totalitarian command.

Which brings up why NATO troops would be a terrible idea in this. That might well give even the Russian conscripts a palpable sense of mission they don’t currently have. So that’s my main reason for hoping to see Western hardware, not people, in Ukraine.

There’s no way to write such a post without at least some retrospective how did we get here. There is endless blame to go around, and again that applies North, South, East and West of the globe. But as a Westerner, I’ll rant here briefly in broad strokes about my own culture’s failings. Yes, the West in the 21st century has failed to live up to its ideals. It enables and profits from the very autocrats and kleptocrats it claims to be appalled by. The West has often been self-serving, hypocritical and only interested in international law when it’s convenient. Inconvenient truths (like, say, the regional chaos and over one million deaths downstream from the 2003 invasion of Iraq) are swept under the rug. It certainly looked the other way during countless other mass slaughters — Syria, Chechnya, Yemen, Sudan, etc. etc. etc. It never welcomed refugees from these regions as it has welcomed Ukrainians. And speaking of Ukraine, it made the unfathomably brain-dead move of publicly dangling NATO membership without actually offering it. Gee, what could go wrong.

But to whatever extent all of the above is true and terrible, it’s also currently irrelevant. Rather, these are all important lessons to be learned and issues to be dealt with if and when we get through this current moment in history. And this current moment is a choice between a very, very dark world and one which at least has a chance for light at the end of the tunnel. So I’ll repeat what I’ve already written here: Slava Ukraini.


(1) Beau of the Fifth Column is such a great resource for real world military matters that I’ve lost track of which video he presents the point.



Sean Lee

Another drifter lost in hyper-nerd space. Obsessed with big questions in science, art, philosophy, humans, and the dark future. My dark past has a physics Ph.D