In an interview with CNN, American President Joe Biden pointed out that “Putin’s threats have a destabilizing effect”, warning against “potential miscalculations that could result in an end-world war (Armageddon). These statements follow the widespread escalation in the Russian-Ukrainian arena and the intransigence in attitudes that encapsulate the parties’ behavior in a way that tells that the war is heading towards a critical juncture, bringing to mind the ghost of the Cuban missile crisis. It also brings up talk about an outbreak of a third world war. This raises questions about the escalation and containment pathways related to the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war.
A New Escalatory Turn
The Russian-Ukrainian war, which erupted on February 24, is witnessing a new chapter of massive escalation that began with Kyiv’s direction to launch counter-attacks with the goal of restoring areas that were under Moscow’s control. Moscow responded to this development by holding referendums to annex four new Ukrainian regions, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia. Additionally, the targeting of the Kerch Strait on Crimea Bridge marks an important turning point in the course of the war, where Moscow followed it with a massive military escalation in the war field. Elaborating, on October 10, Ukrainian cities were raining cruise missiles, in an attack described as the largest-scale air attack since the beginning of the war.
This escalation led to power shortages for large areas in Ukraine, where the attacks heavily targeted major roads, parks, and tourist sites in downtown Kyiv. Furthermore, there were reports of explosions in Lviv, Ternopil, and Zhytomyr in western Ukraine, Dnipro and Kremenchuk in the center of the country, Zaporizhia in the south, and Kharkiv in the east. According to Ukrainian police, Russian forces fired 84 missiles and 43 of them were shot down by Ukrainian defenses. Moreover, 70 establishments were damaged, 29 of which were critical infrastructure, and 35 residential buildings were also damaged.
Commenting on this new chapter of escalation, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a television appearance, said that he ordered “large-scale” long-range strikes to target Ukrainian energy, command, and communication sectors, using air, sea, and land-launched missiles, in response to what he described as “terrorist attacks”, including the Kerch Strait explosion. For his part, Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, considered that the Russian attacks were aimed at deliberately killing people and disrupting the Ukrainian power grid.
In connection with this, US President Joe Biden pledged to his Ukrainian counterpart, Zelensky, during a telephone call, that Washington will provide Kyiv with advanced aerial systems. “President Biden has pledged to continue to provide Ukraine with the necessary support to defend itself, including advanced air defense systems,” a White House statement said in a follow-up to the call. To add further, Washington, along with its allies and partners, will continue to impose sanctions on Russia, as well as “hold it accountable for its war crimes and atrocities, and provide Ukraine with security, economic and humanitarian assistance.” President Zelensky described the conversation as “fruitful”, noting that the main theme was “air defense”, based on the fact that defense cooperation is currently a top priority.
In response, the spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, said, on the Ministry’s website, “We repeat once again specially for the American side: the tasks that we set in Ukraine will be solved.” However, she emphasized that “Russia is open for diplomacy and the conditions are well known. The longer Washington encourages Kyiv’s bellicose mood and encourages rather than hinders the terrorist undertakings of Ukrainian saboteurs, the more difficult will be the search for diplomatic solutions.”
All this escalation comes from the widespread talk of the possible use of nuclear weapons, based on President Putin’s statements that he would use “all available means” to protect Russian territory, which extends the four recently annexed Ukrainian areas. This reaffirms the threats that were previously made by Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, explicitly saying that Moscow has the right to defend itself with nuclear weapons if its borders were passed.
Calming Down: Opportunities Still Exist
The critical developments of the Russian-Ukrainian war scene, and the associated military escalation and nuclear threats, bear scenes from the Cuban missile crisis that nearly triggered a nuclear war between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Since the first spark of the war, there have been some analyses that considered what is currently happening as a prelude to a third world war, especially with the parties being intransigent regarding their positions aiming to achieve the greatest gain they can. This was reflected in the negotiations being stalled more than once on more than one occasion. Moreover, the issue of misconception or miscalculation remains an existing catalyst that may lead one party to adopt a reckless strategy, which will be very costly. Elaborating, the escalation doesn’t necessarily take place according to calculations of logic or interest, but it could be a result of uncalculated actions or incomplete, fragmented, or distorted perceptions. Therefore, the possibilities regarding nuclear threats or uncalculated escalations persist and even require seriousness in facing and dealing with them.
The mention of the Cuban missile crisis not only reflects the negative image associated with the outbreak of a third war but also carries a positive picture related to competing parties being able to overcome and contain this impasse by opening back channels that have strengthened understanding that preserves the dignity of both parties. Thus, the projection of this historic crisis on the Russian-Ukrainian war scene doesn’t necessarily mean its detonation, but may also crystalize a path for its containment. Although there are many tools available to respond to the situation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, including an airstrike against Cuba’s missile sites, or the invasion of Cuba, American President, John Kennedy, pursued a less escalating path by imposing what he called the quarantine – not the siege so that he wouldn’t declare war – on Cuba, to allow diplomacy. Along the same lines, the chances that the Russian-Ukrainian war will have the same positive path remain, in a way that contributes to containing the scene and stands in the face of further escalation.
In this context, it’s clear that there are various indicators that enhance the chance of a trend toward calm and containment. At the top of this list is considering the Russian-Ukrainian war to be completely opposite of the Cuban missile crisis, based on the fact that the United States and Russia are not in a direct nuclear confrontation, and that Ukraine is not Cuba. Therefore, the current escalation situation can be seen as an artificial process designed to maximize each party’s gains. Each party’s position can be broken down as follows:
Moscow seems to hope that the nuclear threat forces Washington to intervene and “freeze” the conflict in its current state, allowing Russia to ensure new territorial gains. Thus, all Russian movements can be viewed from this perspective, including the announcement of military exercises using the Iskander ballistic missile system in Kaliningrad, the preparation to test the nuclear-powered Burevestnik missile system in Novaya Zemlya, and the closure of airspace to test launch a ballistic missile, and others. In this same context, Russia seems to urgently need to stop Ukraine’s counter-attacks, which are affecting its military effectiveness, and even forcing it to retreat and withdraw from some areas. This issue is also linked to the growing talk about the difference between the Russian oligarchy over the military operation, as well as the extent of the Russian people’s genuine satisfaction with its continuation, particularly following the announcement of partial mobilization. Further to the foregoing, Russia is well aware that any nuclear escalation on its part would not only harm its international standing and reputation, but also its relations with friendly and close countries such as China, India, and Central Asian countries.
On the US
For its part, the war has achieved some interests for Washington, such as the reaffirmation of its leadership of the world by leading all international efforts to punish and isolate Moscow. The war also strengthened transatlantic relations and the role of NATO. However, the continuation of the war may undermine and even dissolve these gains, which was reflected by the growing resentment of some countries regarding the sanctions and their impact, the growing disagreement over the energy file, as well as the emergence of signs of transatlantic fracture stemming from the disagreement over the handling of the war. On the other hand, the war imposed a set of pressures on Washington starting with the internal economic problems, going through the enormous economic cost of assistance it provided, and ending with the responsibility it bears to end the war from its leadership role. Consequently, the continuation of war and its trend of unaccounted escalation mean further pressures on Washington and its international standing.
European countries seem to be experiencing difficult situations, testing at the latest the same experience of European integration. For Europe, therefore, the continuation of the war and its trend toward further escalation means more economic problems, a fierce energy crisis, and a massive refugee crisis. Additionally, it also means a further decline of European strategic independence, in exchange for more European dependence on the United States and the NATO security umbrella.
The situation seems twofold, it’s natural for Kyiv to have the desire to receive the maximum military assistance possible to continue its counter-military operations to restore the lands that are controlled by Moscow. On the other hand, Kyiv is suffering a poor situation due to the targeting of its infrastructure and basic services, as well as the suffocation of its livelihood in a way that requires the rapid cessation of military actions and the commencement of an immediate reconstruction process.
In conclusion, the ongoing escalation process, both at the level of war of words and the level of war on the ground, threatens to replicate the dangers of the Cuban missile crisis and even puts the entire world on the brink of a new global catastrophe. Related to this is the difficulty to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian war militarily, and it’s also difficult to expect Moscow to accept any situation that undermines its image and international standing. This means that Russia might take a risk – even a nuclear one – if it realizes that it’s the only option. Thus, it is clear that the intense scene must be contained through diplomatic channels in order to reach a consensus that at least guarantees the minimum of each party’s demands.
Given the lessons learned from the Cuban missile crisis, it’s clear that one of the main aspects of containing the crisis has been the establishment of a back channel of communication between Moscow and Washington. Furthermore, Robert Kennedy, the attorney general and the brother of President John Kennedy reached out to the Soviet Union intelligence official, Aleksandr Feklisov. This is similar to what the Biden administration told the Kremlin via an intermediary, in May 2022, that it was ready to create such a back channel. This is also linked to the recent Russian foreign invitation via the tongue of the speaker, Zakharova, that Russia is open to diplomacy. This is reinforced by the open channels between Washington and Moscow on prisoners’ exchanges.