As I was writing yesterday the Nato expansion talks are a bust, as the West has made it clear that it will not abandon its “open door” policy to Ukraine (despite the fact that the door is actually closed and triple-locked) while countering with no talks are possible until Russian President Vladimir Putin “withdraws” his troops from inside Russia near Ukraine to a new base inside Russia, but a little further away.
As it happens, I was saying in a podcast with Charlie Robertson, the head of research at Renaissance Capital, discussing this issue that one of the likely actions Russia would take is to assume that it has formally been labelled “enemy” and the logical response would be massive redeployment of troops and missiles on the assumption that Russia is about to be attacked by the US.
What I didn't anticipate (kicks self) is the redeployment would be to send missiles to Cuba.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation in Monday’s talks with the US in Geneva, said he could “neither confirm nor exclude” the possibility of Russia sending military assets to Cuba and Venezuela if the talks fail and US pressure on Russia mounts.
Ryabkov added that “it all depends on the action by our US counterparts,” during an interview with Russian RTVI TV. Ryabkov’s statement followed his comments last month comparing the current tensions over Ukraine with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
We have said all along that Russia would not invade Ukraine if the talks failed and that Putin had some sort of “nasty trick” up his sleeve if that happened (as I believe even the Kremlin thought would happen from the start).
Sending missiles to Cuba (and Venezuela) is a genius move. It rubs the US’ nose in its own hypocrisy, as it was JF Kennedy that set the precedent that a big country can tell a little country what to do and that the big country will not tolerate missiles with 5-minute flight times to its big cities from a country it sits next to. As Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, so eloquently put it: Russia will not tolerate a giant aircraft carrier permanently parked on its border.
(And in December 2018, Russia briefly dispatched a pair of its nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela in a show of support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who was under US pressure to resign at the time – another unseemly incidence of US telling a little country what to do.)
The US has insisted that each sovereign state has the freedom to decide for itself on its own security arrangements, which is true in an ideal world. The Russians have countered that if those security arrangements impinge on the security of a third country then that is grounds for objecting and so this limits the choices, which is true in a real world.
Putin has now put the US in the position where if it sticks to its principled argument it should allow Russia to put missiles into Cuba. But of course it won’t.
And the press this will get: “Cuban Missile Crisis II.” It writes itself doesn't it? Even the mainstream press will zero in on the contradictions between real world and ideal world policy – and make Putin’s point for him.
There is even a (very good) movie about the Cuban missile crisis called Thirteen Days to get the US public quickly up to speed with the events of 1962 that happened to be made by Oliver Stone, Putin’s favourite Western cinematographer and documentary maker, who also just happens to have a son who is a show host on RT America. Strange that, eh?
There is still time to save the situation, as the Kremlin says it is waiting for a written response from the US delegation on what comes next. And back channels are likely to be buzzing at the moment.
Charlie was arguing that as US President Joe Biden wants to de-escalate the tension with Russia to deal with China, he assumed he gave Putin some private assurances during their summit in December and a back channel deal will be done.
Personally I’m a lot less sure. I’m convinced this is Putin’s big legacy issue – to finally settle the status of Ukraine and stop Nato expansion – and that he will not back down. It’s also pretty clear that Putin has been planning this for a long time – for 14 years when he started modernising the military by my reckoning – so I don't think he has forced the issue just to get some vague and secret “assurances” that Nato won’t expand. I think the deal is exactly what it says on the can.
The ball’s in Washington’s camp now. I told you this would be fascinating to watch, didn't I?
By the way, the markets crashed yesterday, with the RTS selling off 100 points after the news broke and the ruble alarm-o-meter has soared back to over RUB76 (panic) to the dollar from around RUB71 (all’s good) where it was before.
This article first appeared as the blurb in bne IntelliNews’ EDITOR’S PICKS, a daily email digest of the best articles from the last 24 hours delivered free to your inbox. Click here to see the back issues and to sign up.