Small Wars Journal

Ukraine & Cold War 2.0 – Lessons on Intelligence from the Cuban Missile Crisis

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 5:21pm

Ukraine & Cold War 2.0 – Lessons on Intelligence from the Cuban Missile Crisis


Nate Trimble


Introduction: Cold War 2.0

            The United States (US) is in another Cold War with Russia.  The US military shares several operational spaces with the proxies of the Russian Federation and its troops in such places as the Levant, Northern Africa, South Asia, and Ukraine.  Despite or because they are not declared international armed conflicts, Russian close air support in Libya, firefights in Syria, or standoffs in Ukraine has confronted US-backed proxies that parallels the pattern of undeclared conflict during the Cold War.   

Although all of these shared operational spaces are significant, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is unique because of its strategic value and proximity to Russia.  Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the subsequent US-supported Minsk Accords, and recently the escalation of violence in 2018, the US has maintained a delicate balance on a myriad of foreign policy issues with Russia on Eastern Ukraine.  The situation in Ukraine could have implications for other issues between the US and Russian Governments, which is a concept known as “horizontal escalation.”  For instance, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine could have positive or negative repercussions felt in other regions of world such as providing a political solution in Syria, or even helping cement the internationally recognized Government of National Accord’s (GNA) leadership role in Libya for example. 

This context begs a key question, should the US and NATO continue to support large scale military operations in Eastern Europe or continue the sale of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine?  Similarly, should the US seek a political settlement that includes the reunification of Ukraine and reparations for unlawfully annexing the Crimean Peninsula?  These are but a few of the current tough issues facing the United States and her NATO allies, and all which could lead to the intensification of the conflict if this Cold War with Russia is not abated.

Fortunately, the US can look to the lessons of the past for guidance, specifically to the interaction of intelligence and foreign policy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  This example is useful because collection and production of timely intelligence was the key component to bridge the gap of knowledge and leadership in the last Cold War – and it can do it again.

The Crisis offers a lesson in the important relationship between the Intelligence Community and the President and policy makers.  This is important because if policy makers and the President trust the Intelligence Community, they can leverage the incredible asset of real-time intelligence to make well-informed foreign policy decisions.  In summary, the Crisis provides us with four lessons that are applicable to the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine.  The Crisis established the critical importance of intelligence.  Secondly, intelligence must be timely and accurate in order to be effectual.  Thirdly, intelligence can positively impact foreign policy which directs the course of dialogue in future US relations.  Lastly, intelligence must be a critical component of foreign affairs and easily shared with allies.  Intelligence ultimately informs leaders and policy makers and if implemented and utilized correctly can assist in providing political solutions between states.

Lesson No.1 - The Importance of Intelligence

The Cuban Missile Crisis illustrated the importance of intelligence, especially during a Cold War in which diplomatic ties between two countries were strained and even severed at times.  On the morning of October 16, 1962 Attorney General Robert Kennedy recalls in Thirteen Days that he was called into President John F. Kennedy’s office to share that a “U-2 had just finished a photographic mission and that the Intelligence Community (IC) had become convinced that Russia was placing missiles and atomic weapons in Cuba.” Khrushchev made the decision to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba because he assessed that a US invasion of Cuba was likely, that this was an expedited way to achieve parity in the missile race with the US, and that shipping missiles to Cuba could be an effective way to counter US deployment of nuclear missiles in Turkey.  The IC provided policy makers corroborated intelligence that the Soviet Union was preparing for a nuclear encounter with the United States by providing 60 nuclear warheads, 100 tactical nuclear weapons, and six nuclear naval mines to their Cuban counterparts. Ultimately, intelligence played a decisive role in the Crisis through the development of National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) and Special National Intelligence Estimates (SNIE), and numerous additional intelligence sources provided to President Kennedy on Soviet-Cuban actions before and after October 1962. 

The Crisis offers a lesson in the important relationship between the IC the President and policy makers in Ukraine as well.  If policy makers and the President place trust in the IC they can also leverage the assets of real-time intelligence to make well-informed decisions regarding ongoing Russian aggression towards a NATO ally.  The imminent danger that the citizens of Eastern Ukraine face on a daily basis is personified by the 500-km line of trenches between Ukrainians and Russian backed Separatists and their Russian counterparts.  The US IC is a tremendous asset to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his military forces due to intelligence sharing such as documenting specific acts of Russian aggression such as the cross border shelling by Russian troops and equipment in July 2014.  In an effort to diffuse tensions between not just Ukraine and Russia, but also between Russia and the US in the current Cold War, both former Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were able to discuss the intelligence with the full backing of United Nations Security Council. Though aggression has continued, the dialogue would have not existed without evidence provided by the IC.  This must continue in order for the Zelensky government to create peace in Eastern Ukraine. 

Lesson No.2 – Providing Timely Intelligence to Policy Makers

            Another example of how the Crisis in 1962 could provide lessons for today’s Ukrainian crisis is the lesson learned of the IC providing timely intelligence to policy makers which can prevent future conflict.  At that time of the Crisis Roger Hilsman, the Director of Intelligence and Research at the State Department noted in his book, The Cuban Missile Crisis, the forms of intelligence on the island were, “routine shipping intelligence,” a “steady flow of reports from refugees,” and “reports of actual intelligence agents inside of Cuba.” The CIA received multiple Human Intelligence (HUMINT) reports that laid the foundation of correlating other intelligence platforms to verify the presence of Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) and Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) in Cuba.

            On September 19, 1962, the CIA published its fourth Estimate on Soviet military activities in Cuba, titled “The Military Buildup in Cuba” SNIE 85-3-62.  The Estimate concluded three important facts: the buildup was meant to “strengthen the Communist regime,” improve “air defense and coastal defense capabilities in Cuba,” and that “the USSR may be tempted to establish in Cuba other weapons represented to be defensive in purpose but of a more ‘offensive’ character.”  The effect of the Estimate advised the President on future Soviet military operations in Cuba a full month before MRBMs and IRMBs were active on the island.  This Estimate was only possible due to the correlation of multiple intelligence reporting.  The IC knew not only knew that Russia intended to install the nuclear weapons but where on the island based on reporting.  This not only provided policy makers with diplomatic leverage but also the Commander-in-Chief with options on where and how to orient military assets in the event they were needed.

            Timely intelligence in the hands of policy makers is still critical today.  A negotiated peace settlement which reconstitutes all of Ukraine’s lost territory to Russia is not possible without understanding Russia’s terminal objectives of hegemonic influence in the region and their intended use of proxies to reach those objectives.  If Russia intends to wait this out or if it plans to try and seize additional territory which it tried as recently as February, policy makers need to know.

Intelligence on Russia’s military movements, attribution of their cyber-attacks, and intelligence linking bank accounts which are providing funds to equip Separatist groups of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR, LNR) are all useful tools for American and Ukrainian diplomats.  Without this intelligence supporting the claims of Russian backing policy makers and diplomats will not be able to show Russian attribution of aggression towards Ukraine.

Due to strained US-Russia relations in the current Cold War the United States should continue to press the international community based on timely and verified intelligence in order to urge Russia to support the Minsk agreements as Ambassador Cherith Chalet argued at the United Nation as recently as February 18, 2020.  As early as April 2014, Ambassador Samantha Power presented evidence of Russia’s involvement in human rights violations and the annexation of Crimea at the UNSC. However, very little has been done to take action against Russia outside of US sanctions.   

Lesson No.3 - Intelligence Effectively Influencing Foreign Policy

            Additionally, another example of the Cuban Missile Crisis that is applicable today is understanding that intelligence can effectively and positively affect foreign policy objectives. During the Crisis, after having reviewed substantial intelligence reporting and the three Estimates specifically regarding Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, President Kennedy made explicit remarks to the Soviet Union against placing offensive weapons in Cuba in two separate press conferences on September 4th and 13th, 1962.  At this time, President Kennedy was also given additional intelligence that detailed the SS-4 (MRBM) Manual handed over by GRU COL Oleg Penkovsky.  President Kennedy also had at his disposal intelligence on the projected ICBM force of the Soviet Union from satellite reconnaissance by September 21st.  Knowing that there was no “missile gap” favoring the Soviets and having intelligence on the Soviets size and capabilities of its missile arsenal would allow Kennedy to negotiate from a position of power rather than accommodation. 

Additionally on October 14, 1962, IMINT reporting confirmed MRBM sites in Cuba which contained “an atomic-warhead potential of about one half the current ICBM capacity of the entire Soviet Union.” From October 16-23 former Ambassador and CIA analyst Ray Garthoff confirmed intelligence was able to confirm the disposition, composition, and strength of Soviet personnel and missiles on Cuba.  Subsequently, the CIA released SNIE 11-18-62 and 11-19-62 on October 19th and 20th, 1962 detailing the presence of “four MRBM and two IRBM launch sites in various stages of construction.” Additionally, the Estimate assessed that the continued Soviet missile build-up would have altering strategic effects to military power and would encourage other pro-Communists countries to act accordingly.  This Estimate would ultimately be an effective document to policy makers because it combined the assessment of strategic level intelligence for practical application use for the President and his ExComm. 

This is an example of intelligence positively influencing foreign policy objectives. The President and his administration possessed timely, verifiable, and targetable intelligence that had been correlated through multiple intelligence disciplines indicating the specifics of missile activities in Cuba which enabled him to negotiate a political outcome with Khrushchev on ending the Crisis.  The same can be said in Ukraine in order to positively effect foreign policy objectives in the interest of Ukraine, US and NATO allied countries.  In fact, without timely strategic level intelligence from the IC, policy makers cannot make informed decisions regarding issues of foreign policy. 

One such example in Ukraine that contributes to the on-going Cold War between the US, her NATO allies, and Russia is the build-up of Russian military personnel and equipment on the Crimean Peninsula.  By focusing intelligence assets, both internal to the US and NATO countries to answer priority intelligence requirements from the Executive level on questions of military movement and assess intent of the Russian military. 

Additionally, by informing the President and his cabinet on whether Russia and Separatist groups are abiding by the Minsk Accords it enables his NSC staff and Joint Chiefs to create options for responding from a position of power.  This ultimately allows the US and NATO allied countries to enhance their foreign policy objectives in Eastern Ukraine and to check Russian aggression.

Lesson No.4 – The IC as an Integral Part of Foreign Affairs

            Lastly, another lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis is that the IC must be an integral part of foreign affairs.  With the support of the Organization of American States, France, Great Britain, and Germany, President Kennedy announced a naval blockade, B52 Bombers were deployed, and an American invasion force was 90,000 troops was moved to Florida and Georgia on October 22, 1962.  On October 27, 1962 Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed that the Soviet Union would dismantle missile sites if the US does not invade and secretly agreed to dismantle nuclear missile sites in Turkey. 

The IC learned important lessons on corroborating and analyzing all valuable information, and its performance during the Crisis was critical to avoiding a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  The same can be said today in Ukraine.  The products and assessments created by the IC are an integral part of foreign policy decision making and undoubtedly give the President and his Cabinet the necessary intelligence to know Russia’s capabilities and intent for Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.

The US and Ukraine must leverage intelligence as a key driver for eventual diplomatic solutions to remove Russian influence from another sovereign state.  Further conflict in Ukraine with Russian aggression could lead to the destabilization of the US-Russian relationship and possible expansion of Russian influence in other NATO countries.  As stated in a RAND report released last year, “Intelligence-sharing could be particularly critical in the early phases of a conflict with Russia, during which Russian efforts to obscure its activities could influence the perceived threat perception by NATO allies.”  Intelligence sharing comes with several professional hurdles, but there is an immediate and continuous need for sharing intelligence with our Ukraine partners.  International community engagement and discussion based upon verified and corroborated intelligence is still the best policy for deterring and preventing Russian aggression and influence in Eastern Ukraine.  

Lessons for Today – US, Ukraine, and Russia

By October 28, 1962, during our previous Cold War, the world avoided nuclear war and the US successfully negotiated removal of nuclear missile sites 90 miles from its coast.  This was a direct result of timely intelligence which was provided to President Kennedy on Soviet-Cuban actions.  Nearly six decades later, the US and Russia are in another Cold War, this time in Eastern Ukraine. Though Ukraine is just a flashpoint of the larger Cold War that is ongoing, it is a unique opportunity to learn the value of intelligence in order to prevent a larger conflict with Russia.  It is also an opportunity for the international community to build closer relationships through intelligence sharing with our allies.  Intelligence ultimately informs leaders and policy makers and if implemented and utilized correctly can assist in providing political solutions between states, with the intent of preventing future conflict.

* The content of this article does not reflect or represent the official position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.

About the Author(s)

Nate Trimble is an active duty intelligence officer in special operations with multiple overseas rotations.  Nate holds a Master’s Degree from King’s College London and focuses his research on intelligence support to military intervention and US foreign policy objectives.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:11am

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