Who blinks first in Ukraine?

By | February 12, 2022

Robin Wright writes:

For decades, U.S. and Russian leaders have engaged in brinkmanship over territory, influence, and weapons. They’re at it again, this time in Ukraine, with stakes that could shape the balance of power, European unity, the Western alliance, and the success of Joe Biden’s Presidency. On Friday, the national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned that Vladimir Putin could invade even before the Winter Olympics end, on February 20th—and urged all Americans to leave Ukraine immediately. Yet almost frantic diplomacy—as senior French and British officials travelled to Moscow this week and the Germans are due next week—has so far failed to get Putin to blink. Diplomacy could take months to resolve the Ukraine crisis, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, conceded this week after his five hours of talks with Putin in Moscow. But a decision by the Russian leader to pull back in the weeks or months ahead does not mean he will surrender his ultimate goal. “Even if Putin doesn’t invade this time, he will still want Ukraine,” William Taylor, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me this week, a few days after returning from Kyiv. “He will want to own or dominate or reabsorb Ukraine until he dies.”

For more than a century, U.S. Presidents have had a mixed record in staring down rivals and persuading them to peacefully retreat. The classic example is the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962, U.S. spy planes spotted construction sites for Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba, leading Pentagon brass to unanimously urge President John F. Kennedy to strike the sites—and then invade. Kennedy pushed back. Instead, he ordered a naval “quarantine” and demanded that Moscow withdraw its weaponry. Washington would regard “any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” Kennedy warned in a televised address. The Pentagon moved to DEFCON 3, requiring the Air Force to be ready to launch in fifteen minutes. Premier Nikita Khrushchev countered angrily that the blockade was “an act of aggression” and refused to budge. The U.S. moved to DEFCON 2, signalling that war was imminent. It was, according to the State Department’s official history, “the moment when the two superpowers came closest to nuclear conflict.” [Continue reading…]

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