How Is the Crisis in Ukraine Like the Cuban Missile Crisis?
By William M. LeoGrande*
When Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that the standoff between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine could trigger a crisis akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he wasn’t just referring to the danger of nuclear war, narrowly averted. He was also reminding Washington that Russia is not the only great power jealous of its sphere of influence. Russia has its “near abroad,” and the United States has its “own backyard” as defined in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine warning European powers to stay on their own side of the Atlantic.
Sixty years ago this October, the Soviet Union projected its military power into the Western Hemisphere by placing missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s principal purpose, we know now, was to protect Cuba from another U.S. invasion. (The Bay of Pigs invasion had failed the year before, and Washington had plans for an encore using U.S. troops.)
To President John F. Kennedy, this intrusion into the U.S. sphere of influence was intolerable, not just because it posed a military threat, but because a U.S. failure to defend its own neighborhood would throw Washington’s credibility into doubt. To Kennedy, it was worth risking thermonuclear war to repel the Soviet incursion. Had Khrushchev not backed down, agreeing to withdraw the missiles, the United States was ready to launch a full-scale invasion of Cuba.
To this day, the United States has not accepted the idea that a hostile government allied with a rival superpower should be allowed to exist just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. This year marks not only the 60th anniversary of the Missile Crisis, but also the 60th anniversary of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba designed to overthrow the Cuban government and replace it with one more to Washington’s liking. As Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, candidly proclaimed, “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.”
The Biden administration, however, appears not to recognize its own great power conceits. “We can’t go back to a world of spheres of influence,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN, chastising Russia for its attempts to exert influence over former Soviet states. “We’re not going back to that.” He apparently had not read the U.S. Southern Command’s annual Posture Statements for the past decade, each of which defines the growing influence of Russia, China, and Iran as one of the principal threats the United States faces in the Western Hemisphere. The 2021 version elevates these interlopers to a collective proper noun: External State Actors (ESAs) – external to the U.S. sphere of influence.
When Russian diplomat Sergei Ryabkov suggested that Russia might enhance its military posture in Cuba and Venezuela in response to the U.S. build-up in Eastern Europe, the U.S. warning was unequivocal. Any Russian attempt to deploy missiles in Latin America would be an “aggressive action,” declared United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and would be met with a “strong response.” “If Russia were to move in that direction,” said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, “we would deal with it decisively.”
Biden’s officials seem not to grasp the irony of defending a U.S. sphere of influence while condemning Russia’s claims to its own. Not much has changed in the 60 years since the Missile Crisis, when Soviet missiles in Cuba were, by definition, “offensive” weapons, whereas U.S. missiles in Turkey were merely “defensive.”
If President Joe Biden is serious about replacing spheres of influence with what Secretary Blinken called a “rules based international order” in which small states can decide their own future free of great power coercion, Biden can start in his own backyard. Washington’s policy of regime change toward Cuba, based on economic coercion and subversion – a policy Biden inherited from Donald Trump and continues unchanged – has not worked for more than 60 years. Replacing it with a policy of engagement and coexistence would set a good example for President Putin in his near abroad.