Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sees himself as an astute student of history, once more exploited his nation’s victory over Nazi Germany to justify his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In his annual speech on May 9 – Victory Day in 1945 – Mr. Putin said Russia would continue its war against “torturers, death squads and Nazis,” repeating his fantasy version of reality.
“Today is a day where we remember those who came before us, those who fell on the battlefield and in doing so became immortals, who joined the regiment of immortals, who gave up their lives for our country in the fight against Nazism. And that fight is one which is rearing its head again today. Once again, we see war that is afoot, but we have been pushing back, fighting against international terrorism to protect the people in the Donbas region and to protect our country,” Mr. Putin said before rows of thousands of soldiers in Red Square.
Russia’s autocrat may be missing the more relevant history lesson. Instead of polluting the patriotic vibes of 1945, Mr. Putin might see a reflection of his predicament in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when a past Soviet leader impulsively gambled, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, but then stepped back from the precipice by compromising a peaceful way out.
In this episode of History As It Happens, historians Sergey Radchenko and Vladislav Zubok discuss the origins of Nikita Khrushchev’s move to send nuclear missiles to Cuba in the name of deterring another U.S. invasion of the Communist island. The two scholars have unearthed astonishing accounts of mishaps and miscalculations in recently declassified Soviet documents, which they detailed in an essay for Foreign Affairs.
SEE ALSO: History As It Happens: Is Putin a fascist?
As Mr. Putin shows no sign of seeking a way out of the war in Ukraine, President John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev chose compromise and peace before more unforeseen events or just bad luck could produce catastrophe. Therein lies what Mr. Radchenko and Mr. Zubok refer to as the “unlearned lessons” of the Cuban Missile Crisis: misperception, miscalculation, chance and other factors beyond the control of statecraft can influence the outcome of events. In 1962, they contend, the world got lucky.
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