Some argue that the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (which unfolded 60 years ago this week) holds lessons for those attempting to prevent the war in Ukraine from escalating into a nuclear catastrophe. But that Cold War superpower standoff is not the best place to look. Better insights may be gained from another nuclear-age precedent: the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
While Ukrainians are the ones fighting the Russian invaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that he launched the war to redress an unacceptable strategic imbalance with NATO, although his real motivation was probably his long-held belief that Ukraine is not an independent country. Likewise, the Yom Kippur War was waged by a coalition of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, in order to redress a power imbalance with Israel, a country which they also thought illegitimate. (Egypt and Syria both sought to recover territory that Israel had seized in the Six-Day War of 1967.)
The similarities do not end there. Like the Ukraine war, the Yom Kippur War triggered a global oil shock, with Arab oil producers declaring an export embargo that caused prices to quadruple. It also spurred a surge in inflation, followed by a wave of monetary tightening. Meanwhile, the United States and the Soviet Union delivered supplies to their respective allies.
In 1973, a clear battlefield victory was not forthcoming. That suited US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who dreaded an all-out Israeli triumph as much as an Israeli defeat. He confided to the Soviet ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, that a victory for either side would be a “nightmare.”
For Kissinger, the stalemate represented an opportunity for peace, and after a few weeks of fighting, a ceasefire was negotiated, preventing a regional conflict from becoming a global calamity. During the fighting, the Soviet Union had put its missile forces and nuclear bombers on high alert, and Israel reportedly considered deploying nuclear weapons after the Arab surprise attack. By thwarting a clear-cut Israeli victory, Kissinger defused the threat of a nuclear showdown.
Moreover, by brokering peace agreements between Israel and two Arab client states of the Soviet Union, Kissinger hastened the decline of Soviet influence in the Middle East. Where the Soviet Union could offer only futile war, the US was delivering peace.
This is where the two stories diverge. In Ukraine today, one wonders whether a diplomatic endgame is being contemplated at all by either side. US President Joe Biden, who early in the war expressed concern that Putin had no exit strategy, appears to have no plan for managing any scenario that does not include military defeat for Russia.
But such a defeat may not be possible – or even desirable. Yes, Russia continues to suffer major setbacks on the battlefield. But if Putin’s back is against a wall, his usual instinct is to escalate his way out. That much was clear when he annexed four Ukrainian oblasts over which Russia’s military has only partial (and waning) control, and issued fresh nuclear threats. Though Putin’s nuclear brinkmanship may be a ploy, the US does not seem to be dismissing the risk out of hand. Biden himself has warned of “Armageddon” if Putin uses tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Nuclear escalation is not the only risk. Unlike democracies, dictatorships can be toppled by military defeat. Of course, the most likely prospect is that another strong man emerges, blames Putin for “losing Ukraine,” and then works to rebuild Russian military power. But some analysts fear that a Russian defeat in Ukraine could destabilize, and even destroy, the entire Russian Federation, with devastating consequences.
The Russian Federation comprises almost 200 ethnic groups, 21 national republics, and several autonomous regions, which are often in conflict with one another and the central government. If Russia’s government crumbles, this multiethnic empire could fragment. In this nightmare scenario, the entire Eurasian space would become a strategic void with resource-hungry China and others competing for control and influence.
Biden’s current strategy in Ukraine is straightforward: provide as much aid and ammunition as possible without triggering World War III. This delicate balancing act would benefit from Kissingerian diplomacy.
In 2014, when Russia was moving to annex Crimea, Kissinger wrote that the “test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.” Leaders on all sides should therefore “return to examining outcomes, not compete in posturing.” For the West, this process must begin with a recognition that Ukraine can never be “just a foreign country” to Russia. For Russia, it must begin with a recognition that Ukraine is a fully sovereign state whose borders and territory are sacrosanct.
The West must also stop framing the war as a battle between democracy and dictatorship. America’s tough stance on Ukraine is presumably meant to serve, at least in part, as a warning to China, which may consider launching a similar invasion of Taiwan. But such ideological approaches obstruct realistic solutions.
As the conflict grinds on, causing untold devastation, the West must embrace the diplomatic wisdom that enabled Kissinger to help prevent a catastrophe in 1973. At the very least, it needs to start exploring what leverage is available to deliver peace. For example, China’s now-fragile economy implies that Chinese leaders have a strong interest in persuading Putin that the two countries’ “friendship without limits” requires Russia to respect some hard truths.