The Most Dangerous Moment Since the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Russo-Ukrainian War has brought the world to its most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. No other single incident has had a higher potential to escalate into a general war between Russia and the United States, to inflict mass casualties on such a large number of people, or to bring such a high level of disruption to the global economy.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. When American U-2 spy planes discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban soil under the newly installed Communist regime of Fidel Castro, President John F. Kennedy publicly demanded their withdrawal and blockaded all shipments to and from Cuba. For two weeks Kennedy and his counterpart, Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, played a game of chicken, each daring the other to take a step closer to war. Khrushchev blinked, withdrew the missiles (in exchange for the United States’ discreetly doing the same with its missiles in Turkey), and the crisis was defused. 

The Cold War was frighteningly dangerous, but after the Cuban Missile Crisis both sides worked to improve communication. The protracted contest took on a strange stability, even amid the Vietnam and Afghan wars: The superpowers grew accustomed to each other’s moves and countermoves and knew what was within expected parameters (espionage, proxy wars, arms treaties) and what violated them (cross-border operations by Afghan mujahedin into Soviet territory, for example, or any direct combat between the superpowers within a proxy battlefield). The predictability made crises manageable. That is partly why nothing in the past 60 years has brought the world so close to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. 

But Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying his best. After broadening his invasion of Ukraine in February—the war started in 2014 but was limited to only part of the country—Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons if outside powers intervened. He also put Russia’s nuclear forces on heightened alert.

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