President Joe Biden is right to warn about the potential escalation of the Ukraine crisis into Armageddon. There has been no greater danger of nuclear catastrophe since the Cuban Missile Crisis sixty years ago in October 1962. While more dangerous in some respects because key decisions had to be made in a matter of days or even hours, the 1962 crisis was ultimately easier to resolve thanks to the relative simplicity of both sides’ demands. Its resolution required only that the Soviet Union halt the supply of nuclear missiles to Cuba and remove the ones already delivered to the island, while the United States guaranteed that it would not invade Cuba and agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. In today’s crisis, by comparison, both sides aim no less than to shape the world order according to their interests and principles. In Washington, there is even a strong temptation to achieve political change in Moscow, with the hope not only of weakening Russian president Vladimir Putin’s hold on power but of ultimately removing him from office.
A secondary, though no less major, difference is the complicating role of Russian and American protégés at the center of each crisis. Fidel Castro—the beneficiary of the deployment of Soviet missiles—had legitimate concerns over the security of his regime in 1962. The United States had recently orchestrated its failed Bay of Pigs invasion with Cuban exiles, and there were even assassination attempts (or at least plans for them) against Castro himself. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and his colleagues in the Politburo nonetheless dismissed Castro’s insistence that the missiles remain in Cuba. The decision poisoned the Soviet-Cuban relationship, but it was a price Moscow easily and willingly paid for the sake of avoiding a direct nuclear confrontation with the United States.
In 2022, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—with no less understandable concerns over his government’s security—has managed to elevate himself into a world figure and a major presence in American politics; the Biden administration even takes the position that Zelensky should wield veto power over any arrangement with Russia involving Ukraine. All this has transpired despite the Zelensky government’s total dependence upon the United States and NATO’s unparalleled military, financial, and political assistance, without which Ukraine could not stand up to Russia for even a month. There are sharply divergent narratives in Washington and Moscow about how the two nuclear powers arrived at this point. The Biden administration is dismissing Russian concerns, deeming the Russian attack on Ukraine completely unprovoked. But whatever President Biden thinks, a majority of Russians—not just President Putin, but most of the Russian elite, according to a variety of public opinion polls, including regime critical ones—feel strongly that Russia had good reason to feel endangered and abused. This view is based on a firm belief that in the final days of the Soviet Union, the West promised Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates there would be no NATO expansion. The fact that these well-documented promises were never formalized in treaty form does not alter Russians’ sentiment that, at a minimum, they were profoundly misled. There is also the belief that NATO—born as a military alliance directed against the Soviet Union—remained essentially unchanged after the end of the Cold War as an alliance directed against Russia. As former Soviet satellites and newly independent post-Soviet states—especially Poland and the Baltic states—began to play an ever-stronger role in NATO, the alliance, in Russian eyes, began treating their country as the ultimate geopolitical threat, one that needed to be deterred and weakened.
Though contemplated for a long time, the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine was not well planned and organized. For weeks, Moscow had hoped that its December 2021 demands for assurances on Ukrainian neutrality and the restriction of NATO weapons and infrastructure would elicit a positive response in Washington and Brussels. This did not occur. The demands, to be fair, were formulated in such a way that the United States and its allies could not accept them in their entirety. There remained hope in Moscow, however, that they would nonetheless form the basis for serious negotiations. Instead, Washington and Brussels dismissed the demands, arguing that Russia could have no influence over who was entitled to join the alliance—as if the United States would not be opposed to a neighboring country entering a military alliance with Russia or China. The United States and its key European partners in fact had no intention of bringing Ukraine into the alliance any time soon. Basing its position on a questionable interpretation of NATO policy, the West essentially rebuffed Russia’s key demands and enacted the exact opposite of what Moscow had wanted—namely, making greater commitments of U.S. and NATO military assistance to Ukraine. The Biden administration can certainly argue that NATO’s behavior did not entitle Russia to invade a sovereign state. To claim that the Russian invasion was unprovoked, however, misreads the situation and complicates any future attempt to reach an accommodation.
By the time Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, Russia had already been subjected to multiple rounds of sanctions, NATO weapons were already flowing into Ukraine, and Zelensky—after being elected on a platform that promised accommodation with Moscow—spoke openly about bringing Ukraine into NATO. He rejected the existing basis for peace, the Minsk agreements, reached with German and French mediation, which provided for the autonomy of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Zelensky’s explanation, later embraced by NATO, suggested that the accords could be rejected because a previous Ukrainian government had accepted them under Russian military pressure in 2014 and 2015, when Kyiv was in no position to resist. That such an explanation—similar to Germany’s rejection of the Versailles Treaty—could be seriously accepted by an alliance that professes a commitment to international law is remarkable.
One reason Moscow planned its attack so inadequately—militarily, economically, and politically—was that it was a last-minute decision based on the perception of a threat to Russian security and dignity. Many in the government were not involved in the decision-making process, where the timing was influenced by a need either to deploy Russian forces already positioned on the Ukrainian border for military maneuvers or to simply remove them. This latter option carried the obvious risk of being viewed as a sign of weakness, allowing NATO to conclude that it had called Putin’s bluff and forced Moscow to retreat. Moscow’s reliance on the available forces at Ukraine’s border explains the problems with the initial offensive and the absence of adequate economic preparations, which rendered Russia’s foreign-based hard currency and gold reserves sitting ducks for Western sanctions. Moscow also clearly underestimated the extent to which Ukraine—now deprived of its Russian-speaking provinces in Crimea and the Donbass—had moved in a nationalist and outright anti-Russian direction. What’s more, Moscow failed to appreciate the extent to which NATO assistance had not only upgraded Ukrainian equipment but also changed the very nature of the Ukrainian military into a more modern fighting force than the one Russia first encountered in 2014. Moscow’s mistake is not completely surprising—the United States and NATO themselves did not expect the Ukrainian military to be capable of putting up strong resistance; Washington itself initially offered Zelensky scant help in fighting Russia and instead volunteered to assist in his escape from Kyiv. For his part, Putin aimed to maintain a sense of normalcy at home, without the conflict becoming a major economic hardship that could potentially destabilize Russia itself.
It would be a fundamental miscalculation for the United States and NATO to decide on this basis, however, that Russia can be defeated without moving up the escalatory ladder, all the way to nuclear confrontation. Just as Moscow has underestimated President Biden’s ability to unite the West against Russia’s invasion, the conventional wisdom in Washington and Brussels has misread Russia’s resolve to absorb setbacks and mobilize despite overwhelming odds. While thousands of young Russian men responded to Putin’s mobilization orders on September 21 by fleeing to neighboring countries, many more have complied with mobilization orders, with thousands even volunteering to join and fight. This group includes many people who did not necessarily support the attack on Ukraine, but who felt the West’s response was out of proportion to Moscow’s actions, requiring that Russians view the military campaign not as a limited operation but as a new patriotic war for Russia’s very survival.
Given the West’s significantly stronger conventional forces and overwhelming economic superiority, how can Russia confront NATO? There is a growing sense among the Russian establishment that fighting on Ukrainian territory, killing Ukrainians, and sacrificing thousands of Russian soldiers in the process carries no promise of victory because Western nations are neither required to sacrifice much nor feel directly threatened. As Dmitri Trenin, a prominent Russian national security expert who for years directed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia program, recently argued, a key Russian weakness is the dissipating fear around Moscow’s nuclear weapons. NATO leaders seem convinced that Putin, whom President Biden recently described as a “rational actor,” would not dare reach for the nuclear arsenal. The conventional wisdom in Washington and Brussels assumes, moreover, that if Moscow has so far failed to deploy other available options—launching cyberattacks, cutting transatlantic cables, sabotaging tankers, and supporting radical anti-Western forces around the globe—it’s unlikely to adopt them. Some leaders even seem to believe that Moscow is now paralyzed by concern over Western retaliation. But the time when Moscow is prepared to use all available options short of strategic nuclear weapons may be much closer than Western leaders and experts seem to think.