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Lessons From the Cuban Missile Crisis and How to End the Russo-Ukrainian War

John F. Kennedy

By Joseph Casieri

In October 1962, when missiles were found on the island of Cuba the United States was thrown into a nuclear standoff with their rival superpower, the Soviet Union. Then-President John F. Kennedy set up a warship blockade around Cuba to stop any movement of Russian vessels in or out of the island. Not to be outdone, Soviet leader Khrushchev set his navy down to Cuba in a military show of force.

During these public displays of power, a solution did not come by sheer force of will or by winning a stare-down competition with the Soviet leader. In a much less glamorous fashion, JFK reached a private solution with Khrushchev. The United States agreed to remove the missiles they had placed in Turkey a few years early in exchange for the removal of the Cuban missiles. Both superpowers were able to prevent war and potential damage to their egos by agreeing to these compromises.

JFK understood that to avoid a violent crisis, the Russian leaders needed to feel that they had achieved a goal. Both sides needed to go to their people and proclaim some kind of victory. The question is: how do we apply the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis to foreign policy today? The first step to understanding the Russo-Ukrainian War is to identify what both sides seek to gain.

Russia’s clean water problem

In 2014, Ukraine dammed the water that flowed from the Dnieper River into Crimea after Russian forces annexed the peninsula.  This action defeated the true purpose of the invasion. According to a 2013 study by Greenpeace, over 11 million Russians are without clean drinking water. Putin is desperate for a freshwater supply. 56% of Moscow’s water supply does not pass official safety standards. The Dnieper River promised some relief for the Russian people.

Much of the drinking water in Russia was contaminated by Soviet-era pollution. The Crimean Peninsula is experiencing water rationing due to Ukraine’s river dam. Moscow considered several options to get around Ukraine’s dam, such as drilling into the Azov Sea or building a water purification system on the Black Sea; however, none of these ideas were practical solutions.

In Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine, Russian forces wasted no time in unblocking the Dnieper River dam and releasing the water back into Crimea. This is a sign that Russia is after these water sources to end the rationing.

Ukrainian Safety

Ukraine, on the other hand, is desperate for safety and to maintain its sovereignty and democratic way of life. The Russian invasion will always be a possibility until Ukraine is made a member of the European Union.  The protection NATO offers is the only shield for the people of Ukraine. 

Furthermore, Ukrainian peace is European peace. This war has caused trouble for the neighboring countries most notably Poland. Poland has been the hero of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Unlike the fictional Ghost of Kyiv, the Polish efforts are very real. They have taken by far the most refugees, reporting that many thousands of Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border and there is an expectation that another four million will be pushed out of Ukraine in the coming days.

This kind of displacement is a crisis in and of itself. The Polish leadership and people are responding in a strong way.  The people of Poland are enlisting in the military at rates never seen before. The Minister of National Defense of Poland, Mariusz Błaszczak, recently stated the people’s interest in volunteering for the armed forces: “In recent days, interest in serving in the Polish Army has increased significantly. Only this week, more than 2200 people have made a declaration of joining the Polish Armed Forces. Previously, it was about 400 people a week. Interest in serving in the Territorial Defense Forces is also growing!”

In addition, Polish President Andrzej Duda has responded to the crisis by calling for Ukraine to be inducted into the EU. He tweeted on March 1, a petition that he signed along with several other EU leaders, “Our yesterday’s letter of support to Ukraine’s bid for EU membership, signed together with Gitanas Nauseda, Rumen Radev, Zuzana Caputova, Borut Pahor,  Miloš Zeman, Alar Karis, valstsgriba. We do believe should be immediately recognized as a Candidate Country. Poland needs this to happen to stabilize their own borders and citizens.”

Along with Poland, the NATO allies have taken a stance against Russia with heavy sanctions that have cut off about half of the country’s “High tech imports.” This has caused the Ruble to drop nearly 30%. It is unlikely that Russia will be able to overcome the onslaught of sanctions that the world has uniformly enacted. Putin will not be able to conquer Ukraine in the face of a united Western Hemisphere. But he does have the military capability to cause devastation and trauma that will haunt Eastern Europe for years to come.

This could be the reason for his threat of nuclear war. Putin called for his nuclear forces to be on high alert going into talks with Ukraine. If Putin wanted to take over the country it does not follow that he would first obliterate it and cover the land with radiation poisoning. It is most likely a negotiation tactic. Nevertheless, it must be countered.  That is why President Duda’s call for Ukraine’s entry into NATO is the perfect response. Now Ukraine has the upper hand. 

To end this conflict Russia must be able to feel that it gained from this invasion.  They are too great a powerhouse to allow this war to end with nothing to show for it and return home completely demoralized. Like Kennedy and Khrushchev, they both need a victory. If Ukraine allows Russia to use the Dnieper River and some of the surrounding regions in exchange for their safe entry into the European Union that may be enough to end the invasion.

Joseph Casieri is a representative with The Campus Leadership Project.  He also worked as a Field Organizer for the Georgia Republican Party. Previously. While studying for a degree in Political Science, he interned as a researcher for the National Security and Foreign Policy Department of The Heritage Foundation.

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