Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for the continuing insurgency in Eastern Ukraine mean that peace in Europe can no longer be taken for granted. For several reasons, the West’s current confrontation with Russia is arguably more serious and dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
First, Russia is led by a more unpredictable and adventurous leader. During the Cold War, the Communist Party could control its leader, and Nikita Khrushchev was removed soon after the Cuban crisis. Today, there are no such institutional controls over Vladimir Putin, with the result that the misjudgments and idiosyncrasies of one individual can have an outsized impact on policy.
Second, there are now a large number of grey zones in Europe, increasing the opportunities for miscalculation. During the Cold War, both sides were clear about alignments and red lines. Only Yugoslavia and Romania were potential grey areas, while the main neutral states, Finland and Sweden, were considered to be inviolable. Today the grey zones have proliferated. Where, for example, do Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia fit in any future security framework ?
Third, the United States appears uncertain and disinterested in Europe and is led by a president whom Putin considers vacillating and weak. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the result of Khrushchev’s estimation of John Kennedy as a weak leader based on their meeting in Vienna in June 1961. The cautious Leonid Brezhnev similarly authorized the invasion of Afghanistan during the post-Vietnam period. For its part, Western Europe shows no signs of increasing its middling defense spending, while Washington focuses on the Islamic State and other threats in the Middle East and Asia.
Fourth, unlike the USSR in 1962, Russia is now a declining and insecure power, with a fragile, one-dimensional economy. Oil prices are plummeting, economic and financial sanctions are adding to economic malaise, and the Putin system is in trouble. Fear of the EuroMaidan effect on Russian society, glimpsed in the 2011-12 protests against Putin, has resulted in the Russian president taking an increasingly nationalist and imperialist line while restricting freedoms at home. Declining powers pose their own challenges to international stability, a fact not lost on Europeans who remember the role of both Russia and Austria-Hungary in 1914.
Fifth, there is now almost zero trust between the West and Russia. Even during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there were intensive consultations and communication between the U.S. and Soviet leadership, including an important role played by the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoli Dobrynin. Putin has lost all credibility with key Western leaders, while he in turn is convinced the West is out for regime change in Russia.
Finally, there is the high degree of economic and energy interdependence between Europe and Russia, something that did not really count for much during the Cold War. How this will affect the current crisis is still unclear, but Putin clearly believes Western sanctions to be as dangerous as any military weapon. He retains in his own arsenal the option of cutting off energy flows and business deals.
How can the West and Russia avoid sleepwalking into a larger military confrontation ? A first and most important step is to clarify the contours of the West and to solidify the core, thereby reducing the chances of miscalculation. This means above all maintaining Western solidarity in the face of Putin’s actions : maintaining a viable and reasonable sanctions regime and militarily reinforcing NATO’s eastern members, especially the Baltic States and Poland. European NATO member states, in particular Germany, also have to increase their defense spending immediately and take measures to combat Russian cyber attacks and Russian disinformation efforts within the West. A coordinated Western energy strategy is also necessary. The Obama administration has to reassure Europe that it is engaged and give priority to repairing the relationship with Germany in the wake of revelations of spying on Germany.
At the same time, the West must also revise and revitalize its old approach toward Russia, which combined defense and detente. It must continue to reach out to the Kremlin and the Russian public and avoid any impression that it wants to isolate Russia. It should also avoid any impression that sanctions are intended to promote regime change. Dialogue with Moscow cannot be left only to Germany or the EU. The United States, ultimately, has to play a more central role in discussions with Putin and his small inner circle.