(CNN) — Reflecting on the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy (JFK) once warned that nuclear powers “must avoid confrontations that lead an adversary to choose between humiliating withdrawal or nuclear war.”
The confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine still does not reflect the brinkmanship of a minute to midnight that brought the Soviet Union and the West to the cusp of Armageddon in October 1962.
But Kennedy’s superpower logic resonates poignantly as Putin finds himself cornered by the strategic disaster of his war, the heroic resistance of Ukraine, and an extraordinary multi-billion dollar allied transporter of arms and ammunition.
US President Joe Biden, who has always stated that his two goals are to help Ukraine defend itself and to avoid a direct escalation with Putin that could risk nuclear war, appears to have been reflecting on JFK’s warning.
At a fundraiser in Potomac, Maryland, on Monday night, Biden confessed that he was concerned that Putin had yet to figure out a way out of the war, despite the former KGB agent’s “calculating” nature. Meanwhile, top national security officials admit they still don’t know what kind of incremental Russian success in eastern and southern Ukraine would allow Putin to declare some sort of victory and de-escalate the war, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reported.
All of this is a concern. But it is one that seems somewhat out of step with American policy. After all, Washington’s explicit goal in supporting Ukraine is for Putin to lose the war. Biden asked Congress for $33 billion to send military and other aid to Ukraine, and the House on Tuesday voted to pass a roughly $40 billion bill. Washington is flooding the battlefield with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, radars, drones, artillery shells and howitzers.
This aggressive Western approach, the slow progress of Putin’s war of attrition and the lack of any diplomatic effort to end the war mean the Russian leader will almost certainly find himself backed further into a dangerous corner.
Putin’s only exit option at the moment seems to be capitulation and his tacit admission that the Western effort, combined with fierce Ukrainian courage, got the better of him, a position that would be politically impossible to adopt.
How far would Putin go in his war against Ukraine?
There is no real consensus on what Putin might do if he is desperate. While he does not share Washington’s logical and accurate view that he is losing the war, there is no indication that he is suicidal and would risk a full-scale nuclear confrontation if he were to test Western resolve.
Several top US officials have publicly expressed fears that Putin may pursue tactical, lower-yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield as an alternative to a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. There was some relief in that regard on Tuesday, when Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a congressional committee that the US view is that there is “no imminent potential for Putin to use nuclear weapons.” And the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, said the assessment also covers battlefield or tactical devices.
But it is not alarmist to consider the possibility. Putin has shown himself to be a ruthless leader with little qualms about inflicting massive casualties. He leveled cities in Chechnya and unleashed his forces against civilians in Syria. His war in Ukraine has been characterized by ruthless shelling of residential areas, schools, stations and shelters, and apparent war crimes by his troops. Thousands of his soldiers have died. And Putin has already used weapons of mass destruction, for example targeting Russian defectors on British soil with radioactive elements and nerve agents, disregarding civilians, according to the UK government.
Russia’s willingness to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, in a way the Soviet Union rarely did during the Cold War, to terrorize Western citizens, meanwhile, underscores the kind of advantage that the world’s most fearsome arsenal can provide to rogue states. who want to prevent the possibility of Western intervention.
Putin shows no signs of looking at the exits
While the US can be criticized for not giving Putin the kind of way out that Biden was speculating about, such an initiative would be difficult and might not work anyway.
To begin with, Putin is not looking at the exits. While the war is an economic, military and strategic disaster for Russia, the Kremlin leader dances with his own logic. If he cannot control all of Ukraine or overthrow its government, creating massive human and material destruction that prevents Ukraine from functioning as a normal economy and punishes its aspirations to join the West may be enough, and could deter other states from orbit. ex-soviet
That is perhaps one of the reasons Haines suggested on Tuesday that the Russian leader was “preparing for a protracted conflict in Ukraine, during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond Donbas.” But he warned that the mismatch between Putin’s military capabilities and his ambitions meant he might be forced to go back into that dangerous corner and lash out.
“The current trend increases the likelihood that President Putin will resort to more drastic means, including the imposition of martial law, the reorientation of industrial production, or potentially escalating military action to free up the resources needed to achieve his goals as prolongs the conflict, or perceives that Russia is losing in Ukraine,” Haines said.
The idea that Putin could be pulled out of the strategic impasse he finds himself in also falls apart for two other reasons. First, the Russian leader rejected all diplomatic off-ramps, pleas and warnings to de-escalate the conflict before the invasion. Now the stakes for his personal prestige, his political position and Russia’s reputation, as well as the judgment of history, are sharper. Indeed, there were signs of a possible new escalation on Tuesday when Belarus moved special forces to Ukraine’s borders, citing what it claimed was Western aggression.
The second reason why this may not be the time for diplomacy lies in the belief in hard-line Western capitals like London and Washington that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Western-armed forces have won the right to win the war, and could end up doing so. After all, Ukraine is the injured party, having suffered an unprovoked invasion.
And so far, Putin has not attacked weapons convoys headed to Ukraine on NATO soil or carried out any major cyberattacks against Western targets, at least none that are public knowledge. Both omissions suggest the power of deterrence.
But as the war progresses, with the constant danger of escalation or miscalculation precipitating a broader confrontation, cracks may open in the strength of Western unity.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who tried unsuccessfully to talk Putin out of invading Ukraine, condemned the Russian leader’s bellicose Victory Day rhetoric. But he also said that eventually Ukraine and Russia would have to sit down and talk peace, a cause that would not be served by the “humiliation” of Moscow. Macron then spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a Putin ally, on Tuesday, after which the Elysee Palace said they had agreed “on the urgency of a ceasefire.”
And there was a shocking moment in the Oval Office on Tuesday, when Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, after praising Western unity in Ukraine and condemning the Russian invasion, said this to Biden on camera:
“I have to tell you that in Italy and in Europe now, people want to end… these massacres, this violence, this carnage that is going on. And people think about what we can do to bring peace.
“They want to at least think about the possibility of achieving a ceasefire and starting some credible negotiations again. That’s the situation right now. I think we have to think deeply about how to approach this.”
His comments reflected a growing nervousness that, without some kind of outside intervention, Putin might well find himself pushed into the kind of corner Kennedy was talking about in a speech at American University in June 1963.
Months earlier, as the world held its breath over fears of nuclear war, Kennedy had devised a way for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to resign without losing face in their showdown over Cuba.
Six decades later, some kind of similar adaptation, painful as it may be, may be required for Putin.