Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Joe Biden should look to Kissinger, not JFK, for help to end Ukraine war

  • The Cuban missile crisis, into which the US administration has reportedly been looking to seek guidance since Putin’s nuclear threat, is the wrong example. Kissinger’s handling of the Yom Kippur war, which guaranteed Israel a limited rather than total victory, offers a much better guide

As Vladimir Putin has threatened nuclear escalation in Ukraine, the Joe Biden administration has reportedly been studying the Cuban missile crisis. According to a report in The New York Times, “Mr Biden has been looking to help the Russian president find an ‘off-ramp’ that might avert the worst outcome. His logic came right out of the Cuban missile crisis, to which Mr Biden referred twice in his comments at a Democratic fundraiser in New York, a good indication of what is on his mind.”

It’s not clear if the Times writer was correctly interpreting Biden and his top aides. But if they are really looking for an off-ramp for Putin to save face, the crisis of 1962 is exactly the wrong place. It contributed greatly to Nikita Khrushchev’s downfall and spurred the Soviet Union, in a decade-long mobilisation, to achieve nuclear weapon “parity” with the United States.

The Cuban missile crisis

On the other hand, the Times’ reporting notwithstanding, Putin’s downfall may well be Biden’s unstated goal, regardless of his public statements to the contrary. The myths surrounding the missile crisis rather mirror those around the Ukraine war today. Consider the following parallels.

Supposedly unprovoked, the Soviets moved troops and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) into Cuba directly to threaten continental US. But thanks to the steadfastness of the Kennedy administration and its masterful diplomacy, Khrushchev backed off.

In reality, Khrushchev was responding to the stationing of American IRBMs in Turkey, now Türkiye, as they became operational in April 1962. (Chapter five of the Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Vol. 4, provides an excellent summary and analysis of the whole crisis and its aftermaths.)

A few months after the crisis ended in late November, the United States quietly removed its IRBMs from Türkiye. Khrushchev didn’t lose, but he looked weak enough to be removed from power in the Kremlin. His real sin was that unlike the Kennedys, he wasn’t ready to risk a nuclear war to end humanity.

Likewise, it’s now an article of faith in the West that Putin’s war was unprovoked, a pure expression of Russian revanchism and imperialism. That would be disregarding his almost two decades-long warnings against Nato’s eastern expansions, including the Western military alliance’s highly provocative and regular exercises and conspicuous reinforcement of troops in countries bordering Russia.

I am sure Putin wouldn’t want to be Khrushchev. But maybe Biden thinks he is John F. Kennedy, or JFK.

The Yom Kippur war

Henry Kissinger has got into hot waters recently because he has been proposing perfectly sensible options to end the conflict in Ukraine, which will inevitably involve some territorial concessions to Russia and security guarantees to Ukraine. But the problem is that Washington and Brussels, and the mainstream media with their saturated one-sided reporting of the war, have worked Western publics into a state of anti-Russian hysteria.

Perhaps the Western media, which are usually so quick to point out the danger of rousing nationalist sentiments in China by the communist state, forget the same problem applies in Western democracies too, if not worse. Somehow, many people have been led to think Ukraine should achieve total victory and that Putin should be put on trial at The Hague. Those outcomes may be satisfying in the short-term; it will likely lead to another Russian war in Central Europe down the road.

As the same Times article reports: “No one in the [Biden] administration wants to suggest, in public or private, that the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky should avoid chasing Russian troops out of every corner of Ukraine, back to the borders that existed on February 23, the day before the invasion began.

“But behind closed doors, some Western diplomats and military officials say, that is exactly the conversation that may have to happen if the goal is to balance winning back territory against preventing Mr Putin from lashing out.”

That was pretty much the same problem that confronted the presidency of Richard Nixon when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria overwhelmed Israel in the battlefield in the opening phase of the Yom Kippur war. Supposing Biden really doesn’t think Putin must go and wants to offer him an off-ramp, the 1973 war offers an excellent example.

By the time of the Jewish Yom Kippur or Islamic Ramadan in 1973, Nixon was distracted by Watergate and the threat of impeachment, so the war was left to Kissinger to handle. After the Israel Defence Forces were initially overwhelmed, the US rushed weapons to the Jewish state. The Israeli counteroffensive was so successful it threatened a repeat of the six-day war of 1967, and a total victory and humiliation of the Arab states. That would have almost certainly meant another major Arab-Israeli war down the path.

Kissinger wanted an Israeli victory that would guarantee its security, but not so absolute that it would lead to the collapse of the Arab leaderships. His chief concern was to maintain detente with the Soviet Union in the Middle East and elsewhere. He therefore slowed down and stopped weapon supplies to Israel and, with his Soviet counterparts, applied pressure on the belligerents to settle.

In an exchange made famous in his White House memoirs, Golda Meir insisted she wanted “absolute security” for Israel, to which Kissinger supposedly replied that it would mean “absolute insecurity” for everyone else. In his private conversations with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, he was even blunter: “My nightmare is a victory for either side.”

Certainly the discrediting of Anwar Sadat would have been most welcome by Israel at the time just like it was with his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser after the 1967 war. It was fortunate for Israel that Sadat was not allowed to be humiliated in 1973. And that proved Kissinger, ever cynical, was nevertheless right.

Ukraine’s real “war of independence”

He who pays the piper calls the tune. The nation and military alliance that supply essential weapons and intelligence to Ukraine in its resistance against Russia can greatly control, if not determine, the tempo, directions and even outcomes of the current war.

Kyiv no doubt wants to recover all its territories from Russia, and just punishment for Putin and his cronies. Should the West let it? Having roused the Western publics into a pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian hysteria, it’s not possible to openly call on Kyiv to moderate its war aims.

But it would be very unwise for Washington and Brussels to aim for total victory for Ukraine, which could threaten an actual nuclear war, or the humiliation and downfall of Putin. In the latter, perhaps a social democrat and admirer of the West would emerge as Russia’s new leader. More likely, though, it would be an even worse Russian nationalist and revanchist, and another Russian-Central European war down the road after a period of instability and power struggle in Russia.

That’s is exactly what Angela Merkel meant when she said last week that sustainable peace in Europe could only be achieved if Russia was part of it, that while the West had been adamant in its support for Ukraine, it should keep its “mind open” about what might seem “unthinkable” now – Moscow’s future role in Europe’s affairs.

To achieve an off-ramp for Putin, if that’s what Biden really wants, Nato and Washington would do well to moderate the pace of weapon supply and intelligence support, and push for a negotiated settlement. Understandably, Kyiv looks on the war as unmitigated Russian imperialistic aggression, but perhaps it should more appropriately be looked on as Ukraine’s real war of independence that had been delayed for three decades.

While independence was formally gained in 1991, it was achieved, as with many other former Soviet member states, at a moment of Russian weakness from the communist collapse. Its boundaries might have been internationally recognised, but they lacked legitimacy for Russia. You could say, so what? Well, that has been precisely the source of Russia’s dangerous discontents and resentment. That’s why a war is raging now.

Usually, in such many instances of history, a war of independence would have been fought to settle the borders, either definitively or at least for a long while. Putin was not wrong to claim Russia and Ukraine were joined at the hip in their shared millennial history and culture. It would have taken a brutal total war to sever all those ties. And this war is it.

Whatever its outcome, after this war, Ukraine will become definitively part of the West. But such wars for independence also usually warrant boundary changes. It’s not realistic for Kyiv to insist on having its cake and eating it too, that is, in retaining all its pre-invasion boundaries, let alone the 1991-defined ones. Nor should the West encourage it to do so.