“We were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked,” quipped John F Kennedy after hearing that the greatest emergency of his short presidency, the Cuban missile crisis, was coming to a peaceful end.
After nearly two weeks of tense nuclear brinkmanship over whether or not the Soviet Union would be allowed to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba, the Kennedy administration could claim a political victory.
It is true that the Americans secretly conceded to the Soviet demand for withdrawing US nuclear missiles from Turkey, which directly threatened the Soviet Union in the same way that Moscow was attempting to use Cuba to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons, but this withdrawal of American nuclear arms did not occur until several months after the Cuban crisis had concluded.
What’s more, the American nukes being pulled out of Turkey were highly destabilizing. The Jupiter missiles that JFK allowed to be removed did not enhance deterrence against the Soviet Union. In fact, technically speaking, they could only ever be used as a first-strike weapon, which did not serve the US nuclear strategy of deterrence.
Thus Washington’s withdrawal of the old nukes from Turkey did not actually impinge on the American ability to threaten the USSR with nuclear retaliation, in the event that a nuclear war broke out.
Decades later, in 2021, another Democrat, Joe Biden, was sitting in the Oval Office. Biden had spent the previous year beating the drums against Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, while campaigning for election as president of the United States. Once elected, the Biden team went about implementing what it thought was a necessary strategy of deterring Russian aggression abroad and shoring up democracy within Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, gave credence to the Ukrainian government’s frankly insane law calling for the complete “de-occupation” of Crimea. Of course, this could only be accomplished with military force – and with the help of NATO (specifically, the US military). Meanwhile, the Biden administration appeared intent on stoking internal divisions within Russia by encouraging Alexei Navalny to return to his homeland and challenge President Putin politically.
All of these moves prompted the Kremlin to deploy masses of Russian forces along Ukraine’s border. Most experts at the time believed Putin was getting ready to cleave more of Ukraine away, just as he had done with Crimea in 2014. It appeared as though war would commence in a matter of weeks, if not days, in March of this year.
President Biden ramped up the blustery language in public and ordered the deployment of US naval forces to the Black Sea. But almost as quickly as he had issued those provocative orders, Biden change the orders. Rather than US Navy warships entering the Black Sea, Biden wanted US Coast Guard cutters.
Biden’s cancellation of a US Navy freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in favor of the deployment of a single Coast Guard ship made the new American president look weak and feckless. Putin pressed on.
Just as it seemed as though the world was on the brink of an actual war between the two largest nuclear-weapons states, Biden did the unthinkable: He picked up the phone and spoke directly with Putin.
While in public President Biden cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war, in his private chat with his Russian counterpart, the US president conceded two major points to the Russian strongman.
First, he agreed to a bilateral summit this June.
Second, Biden likely indicated his willingness to remove economic sanctions on the controversial, nearly completed, Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline linking Russia with Germany.
The administration of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had sanctioned this project as a way of weaning Europe away from Russian energy sources. Biden, the man who promised to stand tough against Russia, has just given Moscow a great gift. In May, Biden followed through on his unfortunate promise to Moscow.
I recently shared a panel with Jeffrey Edmonds, a Russia specialist at the research and analysis organization CNA based in Arlington, Virginia, in which he stated that Putin’s goal was not to restore Russian greatness. Instead, Putin’s major objective was to remind the world (and the Russian people) that Russia was – and very much is – a great power.
I think Edmonds is right. Thus Biden’s decision to agree to a bilateral discussion in his first six months as president is a huge victory for the embattled Putin.
And removing sanctions that would allow Russia to complete its pipeline to Germany was the greatest gift ever. No wonder Putin backed down from attacking Ukraine, when all indications were that he was about to. Why would Putin want to upset the apple cart now? He has Biden right where he wants him.
No amount of bluster on Biden’s part as it relates to human rights and democracy in Russia will ever change the dynamic that he allowed to be created in his first few months as president.
Moscow, sadly, has the upper hand – and the Kremlin knows it.
America gains nothing from Russia either invading or not invading Ukraine. America gains even less from whether or not Russia becomes a democracy. America does, however, lose if Russia is viewed as an equal to the United States. America loses bigly if Russia cements itself as the dominant energy power in Europe (which it now will, courtesy of President Biden).
Thank God that Biden was not in charge during the Cuban missile crisis. Biden went eyeball to eyeball with Putin and blinked, repeatedly.
Expect nothing good to come from any future interactions between Biden and Putin. Increasing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy will bring Europe closer to Russia’s orbit and farther away from the United States, something Germany (as well as France and especially Russia) has striven to do since the 1990s.
This is what losing looks like.