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Geopolitics

Waiting For Putin: Is Ukraine Caught In New Kind Of Cuban Missile Crisis?

Will there, or will there not be a Big War with Russia? Ukrainians try to gauge what happens next as tensions remain following the call between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

photo of a woman on a scooter near barbed wire at the border of Russia and Ukraine

Barbed wire near the Russia-Ukraine border

Valentin Sprinchak/TASS via ZUMA
Anna Akage

The two-hour conversation between the Presidents of the United States and Russia, to the surprise of virtually nobody, ended without any break in the tension. Both Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke in clear and plain terms during the talk Tuesday, over a secured video link, as Russian troops have amassed at the Ukrainian border and the world fears the growing risk of an invasion.

Putin insisted that NATO missiles in the region are a red line, while Biden threatened to cut Russia out of the international financial system if Russia invades Ukraine. Another phone call, this time from Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is planned for the end of this week.


Yet as this conflict looks to occupy our attention at the dawn of 2022, it may be worth looking back 60 years to the Cuban Missile Crisis for clues of what could happen, writes Aleksander Demchenko, the editor of Livy Bereg, an independent Ukrainian media.

A game of nuclear "chicken"

The Soviet leader back in 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, was just as apprehensive as Putin is today about the placement of U.S. weapons near his border. Tensions had been rising in the prior years with the Soviet Union’s scattered medium-range ballistic missiles over occupied East Germany, in response to the Americans — who had dozens of times more lethal warheads, building ballistic missiles close to the Soviet border.

Tensions finally boiled over 6,000 miles away in Oct. 1962 when Soviet missiles were spotted on their way to Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast.

Though Moscow and Washington are unlikely to face off directly in Ukraine, are we in for another high-stakes game of chicken between nuclear-armed world powers? Demchenko thinks that Moscow is again, like 60 years ago, underestimating Washington's resolve.

All citizens must be ready to defend the country.

Caught in the middle, Ukrainian politicians think tanks and ordinary citizens on social networks are offering their own assessment of the threat of war, which comes seven years after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Some are holding out hope that the Biden-Putin call may actually be the beginning of a way out. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba noted that this dialogue made containment and de-escalation possible.

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin on a video call with U.S. President Joe Biden on Dec. 7

Putin speaking with Biden on Dec. 7

Mikhail Metzel/TASS/ZUMA

Calling on all Ukrainians

Ukrainian politicians have long pinned hopes on the U.S. and the European Union. "Now, since there is a lack of constructiveness on Russia's part, the main priority is to effectively implement a comprehensive deterrence package to deter it from further military escalation," said Kuleba, adding that close cooperation with allies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean is being pursued toward this purpose.

Defense Minister Alexei Reznikov is deeply convinced that Ukrainian society has changed during the war, and whatever the results of negotiations between the countries' leaders, Ukrainians have already made their choice. "All citizens must be ready to defend the country. So that the Kremlin has no desire for a relapse," stated Reznikov in his recent interview in Ukrainian magazine Army Inform.

Our aggressive neighbor is not going anywhere.

He stressed that the leadership positions are now occupied by commanders who have been through the war, and this is the moment when it is worth laying down a new military culture.

"Our aggressive neighbor is not going anywhere. If the war ends tomorrow and Russia withdraws from occupied Crimea and parts of the Donbas and Luhansk regions, there are decades ahead to at least achieve normalization of relations and non-conflict coexistence,” Reznikov said. “As it was before, it will no longer be. All citizens must be prepared to defend the country. So that the Kremlin will not even have an idea of relapse."

According to Reznikov, children in Ukraine should be brought up with the understanding that they may have to deal with the need to protect the country.

"And this means a completely different form of relationship between citizens and the authorities. This is the basis for a new social contract. When the state talks about comprehensive defense, national resistance, calls citizens to territorial defense and reserve, we must show that we trust our people. One such signal might be to liberalize gun handling. Forming a culture of gun handling and total military training," said the head of the Department of Defense.

Aerial photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba

upload.wikimedia.org

Welcome to hell

The defense minister's words might sound populist, but they reflect reality. Currently, high school students in Kyiv have homeland defense classes, where they learn how to use weapons, do field dressings and sing patriotic songs.

The flash mob #UkrainiansWillResist, which was also actively supported by foreigners, is rapidly gaining popularity in social networks amid the threat of a large-scale Russian invasion.

Ukrainians, mostly with the help of art and memes, show what they will do to the enemy in the event of an invasion of their native lands.

We must show our adamant unity and resilience.

Participants of #UkrainiansWillResist note that they will not accept any ultimatums and peace from Russia according to the aggressor's scenario. "Putin, welcome to hell!", one of the messages reads.

At the same time, some Ukrainian politicians are pinning their hopes not on the Ukrainian people or the army, but again on the White House and the European Parliament. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk believes that the existence of the state is at stake, writes Ukrinform.

"Putin understands only the language of force. Our strength is in our unity and in our unwavering support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk said. “Our strength is in the decision of our Western partners to provide us with defense weapons. Our strength is in laying out a clear plan of action to Putin and showing what will happen if Putin continues to escalate and try to take over Ukraine ... We must show our adamant unity and resilience."

The basis of Ukraine's policy, Yatsenyuk believes, is to become a member of NATO and the EU.

EU mythology v. Russian propaganda

The mantra of joining the European Union, repeated by Ukrainian politicians, works more as a legend than as a real strategy. Oksana Zabuzhko, a well-known Ukrainian writer and activist, criticized this policy in a recent interview for Ukrinform.

"What if the EU collapses tomorrow? The EU is not eternal, sorry," says Zabuzko. "We see how Putin is consistently shafting it, tearing up exactly where it is thin. I have always treated the prospect of EU expansion at the expense of Ukraine with a certain dose of caution. Brussels, which has no idea what to do with Poland, has even less idea what to do with Ukraine. 'Joining the EU' is our political mythology, so to speak."

We are an island of freedom.

Zubzko says that following the pro-democracy Maidan movement in Kiev in 2013, Ukraine is on solid democratic standing. "We won't have a dictatorship in the foreseeable future. We are now an 'island of freedom' in Eastern Europe compared to what is being done on the left and right of us."

Still, a part of Ukrainian society is quite skeptical about the risk of a full-scale war, convinced because the Ukrainian media space is constantly bombarded with Russian propaganda. Anatoly Bondarenko, an analyst and co-founder of the project Texts.org, said during an IT forum that the current wave of Kremlin propaganda in the context of a possible invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russian troops is stronger in the spring, and its main driver is Russian official websites.

"If you search for information on the word 'invasion,' you can see that the wave of propaganda, the wave of informational support. What Russia is doing now is much greater than in the spring, when troops were also concentrated on the border. If last time more was written about it by untrustworthy sites, sites with low-quality content, now it is Russian official sites that are the main driver of this wave of propaganda," said Bondarenko.

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