The old but relevant script of the Cuban Missile crisis


With the risks for escalation and miscalculations growing in the Ukraine war, it is time to revisit the sobering lessons of 1962

Status of the Russia- Ukraine war:

  • Neither President Volodymyr Zelensky or his western partners, nor his Russian adversary, President Vladimir Putin, can predict how the war will end. Earlier assumptions have been upended — Russia’s short ‘special military operation’ to ‘de-Nazify and de-militarise’ Ukraine is already a nine-month-war, and likely to extend into 2023.
  • Meanwhile, the trans-Atlantic North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unity under U.S. leadership despite visible internal differences has not collapsed; Mr. Zelensky’s emergence as a wartime leader is surprising; and, poor Russian military planning and performance, a shock. For the present, Russia is too strong to lose and Ukraine, despite NATO support, too weak to win; so, the war grinds on with no ceasefire in sight.

Lessons from Cuba :

  • Yet, there is one outcome that must be prevented — a breakdown of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and a global conscience has sustained the nuclear taboo for over 75 years.
  • But it is time to revisit the sobering lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis that brought the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon, as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
  • This unfolded in the backdrop of a growing distrust between the capitalist USA and increasingly communist regime of Cuba. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was an attempt in 1961 (during the Cold War) to remove Fidel Castro from power in Cuba. The CIA trained Cuban exiles and these exiles launched an attack in a bay called the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a failure and most of the attackers were captured or killed. While US President Kennedy oversaw the botched attack, it brought him into direct conflict with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev and Cuban Prime Minister Castro.
  • In October 1962, Kennedy was informed that Soviet Russia (U.S.S.R.) was preparing to deploy medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. After deliberating with his core group of advisers, he rejected the idea of an invasion or a nuclear threat against Moscow, and on October 22, declared a naval ‘quarantine’ or Blockade of Cuba. Simultaneously, he started a back-channel talk with the Soviet.
  • The crisis defused on October 28 when Soviet Premier Khruschev announced that Soviet nuclear missiles and aircraft would be withdrawn in view of U.S. assurances to respect Cuba’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. What was kept a secret by both leaders was the fact that reciprocally, the U.S. also agreed to withdraw the Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey.
  • The key lesson learnt was that the two nuclear superpowers should steer clear of any direct confrontation even as their rivalry played out in other regions, thereby keeping it below the nuclear threshold. Deterrence theorists called it ‘the stability-instability-paradox’.
  • With their assured-second-strike-capability guaranteeing mutually assured destruction (MAD), both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R were obliged to limit the instability to proxy wars. Nuclear war games over decades remained unable to address the challenge of keeping a nuclear war limited once a nuclear weapon was introduced in battle.

Russia’s nuclear signalling :

  • The Ukraine war is testing the old lessons of nuclear deterrence. Russia sees itself at war, not with non-nuclear Ukraine, but with a nuclear armed NATO. Mr. Putin has therefore engaged in repeated nuclear signalling . He also ordered a ‘partial mobilisation’ and conscription. He announced referendums in the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
  • Russian ground troops have also attacked Ukrainian civil nuclear energy assets in Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia, raising fears of a nuclear meltdown and associated environmental and human hazard.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said it is pointless for Russia to strike Ukraine with nuclear weapons. Yet foreign affairs analysts fear that the country is dangerously flirting with nuclear war that could drag other countries and alliances (eg, NATO, SCO) into the bilateral conflict.
  • However, Russian nuclear use makes little operational sense. In 1945, Japan was on the verge of surrender and only the U.S. possessed nuclear weapons. Use of a tactical nuclear weapon will only strengthen Ukrainian national resolve.
  • NATO response is unlikely to be nuclear but will be sharp. International political backlash would be significant and Mr. Putin may find himself increasingly isolated. Many countries in East and Central Asia could reconsider nuclear weapons as a security necessity, leading to a regional nuclear arms race.
President Joe Biden said in October 2022 that the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” is at the highest level since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as Russian officials speak of the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons after suffering massive setbacks in the eight-month invasion of Ukraine.

Way forward: Role for global diplomacy:

The fighting in Ukraine will intensify in future. This raises the risks for escalation and miscalculations. Right now, the goal of a ceasefire seems too distant. The United Nations (UN) appears paralysed given the involvement of permanent members of the Security Council (UNSC). Therefore, it is for other global leaders who have access and influence, to convince Mr. Putin that nuclear escalation would be a disastrous move.

India’s role:

  • India is the incoming chair for G20. India has refrained from condemning Russia, keeping communication channels open. In a bilateral meeting with Mr. Putin in Samarkand last month, Mr. Modi emphasised that “now is not the era of war”.
  • In the run-up to the G-20 summit, Mr. Modi is well placed to take a diplomatic initiative to persuade Mr. Putin to step away from the nuclear rhetoric. This means emphasising the deterrent role of nuclear weapons and not expanding it; to reiterating Russia’s official declaratory position that restricts nuclear use for “an existential threat”.


Such a statement would help reduce growing fears of escalation and may also provide a channel for communication and open the door for a dialogue that can lead to a ceasefire. The lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis remain valid 60 years later.

The dismal case of slashing schemes and cutting funds


Over the past three years, over 50% of existing central government-sponsored schemes have been discontinued, subsumed, revamped or rationalised into other schemes.

Instances of the move:

  • The impact has been varied across Ministries. For example, for the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, there are just three schemes now out of 19 schemes, i.e., Mission Shakti, Mission Vatsalya, Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0. Mission Shakti itself replaced 14 schemes which included the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ scheme.
  • In the case of the Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Dairy, just two schemes remain out of 12. Additionally, the Ministry has ended three schemes which include Dairying through Cooperatives, National Dairy Plan-II, etc.
  • For the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, there are now three out of 20: Krishonnati Yojana, Integrated Scheme on Agricultural Cooperatives and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.

Critical analysis:

  • There may be some who believe that a reduction in government schemes is a notable achievement. But does this lead to better governance, through less government? Are we reducing the state to the bare bones?
  • For schemes that exist, there are challenges such as funding cuts, disbursement and utilisation of funds. As of June 2022, ₹1.2 lakh crore of funds meant for central government-sponsored schemes are with banks which earn interest income for the Centre.

Women empowerment:

For example, for the Nirbhaya fund with its focus on funding projects to improve the public safety of women in public spaces and encourage their participation in economic and social activities, ₹1,000 crore was allocated annually (2013-16), and remained largely unspent. As of FY21-22, approximately ₹6,214 crore was allocated to the fund since its launch, but only ₹4,138 crore was disbursed. Of this, just ₹2,922 crore was utilised. Yet, a variety of women-focused development schemes across States are being turned down or ended. Meanwhile, women continue to face significant risks while in public spaces.

Farmers welfare:

Similarly, fertilizer subsidies have been in decline over the last few years; actual government spending on fertilizers in FY20-21 reached ₹1,27,921 crore. In the FY21-22 Budget, the allocation was ₹79,529 crore. Such budgetary cuts, when fertilizer prices have risen sharply after the Ukraine war, have led to fertilizer shortages and farmer anguish. How will we incentivise farmers to continue agricultural operations?

Rural wages:

  • The allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) went down by approximately 25% in the FY22-23 Budget earlier this year, with the allocated budget at ₹73,000 crore when compared to the FY21-22 revised estimates of ₹98,000 crore.
  • The Economic Survey 2022-23 has highlighted that demand for the scheme was higher than pre-pandemic levels as rural distress continues. Anecdotal cases show that actual funding disbursal for MGNREGA has often been delayed, leading to a decline in confidence in the scheme.
a recent study conducted by Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University, said that MGNREGS made up for up to 80% income loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also said that 39% of the surveyed households did not get a single day of work in the COVID-19 year. This shows the continued relevance of the rural wage scheme, which can not be simply wished away.


For Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), who are the first responders, there have been delays in salaries for up to six months. Regularisation of their jobs continues to be a struggle, with wages and honorariums stuck at minimum levels.


Funding for wildlife habitat development under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has declined: from ₹165 crore ( FY18-19), to ₹124.5 crore (FY19-20), to ₹87.6 crore (FY20-21).

Case study: Rationalisation of CSS:

  • Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) are schemes that are implemented by state governments of India but are largely funded by the Central Government with a defined State Government share. Over the years, the number of CSSs started increasing due to political reasons. It reached 360 in 2002.
  • Various committees over the years suggested reducing the number of CSSs. The 15th Finance Commission noted that CSS outcomes are questionable. The commission suggested that cut down of such schemes will provide much needed flexibility to state governments in financing.
  • Reduction in the schematic grants also became a force majeure for the central government because of reduction in central government’s fiscal space on account of higher devolution of funds recommended by the Fourteenth Finance Commission.
  • CSS rationalisation, in this context, was inevitable. It was pruned to 66 by 2013. Further merger of CSSs was done on the report of Shivraj Singh Chauhan committee when CSSs were reduced to 27. Currently 10 schemes are funded fully by the central government while 17 are funded in a ratio of 60:40 between center and state governments.

Way forward:

  • Rather than downsizing government schemes and cutting funding, one should right size the government. After the Goods and Services Tax (GST) reform, the Centre-State relationship has been transformed, with fiscal firepower skewed towards the Centre.
  • Our public services require more doctors, teachers, engineers and fewer data entry clerks. We need to build capacity for an efficient civil service to meet today’s challenges, i.e., providing a corruption-free welfare system, running a modern economy and providing better public goods.


Rather than having a target of fewer government schemes, we should raise our aspirations towards better public service delivery.


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