From ‘Missiles of October’ to Missiles of Syria

The ups and downs in relations between the U.S. and Russia has resulted in the countries finding themselves on different sides of the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, and in each of these crises Russia has continued to test the U.S.'s commitments.

In the 1974 film “Missiles of October,” directed by Anthony Page, which is based on the actual tapes of the debates between U.S. decision makers during the Cuban Missile Crisis, tells the story of the struggles of then U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration to decide how to take action against the Soviet Union’s policy of arming Cuba with nuclear missiles. Although this Cold War movie was re-adaptation as “Thirteen Days,” starring Kevin Costner and directed by Roger Donaldson, Page’s version of the movie has some interesting conversations about the dynamic between two superpowers. In one of these moments, in a private conversation with his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy, JFK explains how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was making wrong historical analogies in regarding the U.S. commitment of power. JFK says: “He is looking back over the past. He is thinking Kennedy did not commit the American power at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy did not commit the American power at the Berlin wall. Kennedy won’t commit American power now.” According to Kennedy this was a serious miscalculation on the part of the Soviet administration.


Although the Cold War ended almost 25 years ago, although the crisis and tension between Russia and the U.S. both in Ukraine and Syria are nowhere close to the Cuban Missile Crisis and although we avoid analyzing bilateral relations between two countries from our reading of Russia from “Rocky IV,” there is some similarity between how Khrushchev tested the U.S. reaction in different instances and how Russian President Vladimir Putin took steps to challenge U.S. commitments in different regions of the world.

The recent Russian military buildup in Syria, despite the claims of some, surprised many in the U.S. and puzzled many about Putin’s Middle East policy. Scholars and observers who want to have some insight about Putin’s mind started to read the books and articles about the leadership profile of Putin again. But maybe it was just another instance of Russia testing U.S. commitments. Putin gave the first of these tests in 2008 when the Russian army launched a comprehensive operation against Georgia because of the dispute over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is considered to be the first European armed conflict of the 20st century. Although Western countries, including members of the EU and the U.S., reacted harshly in a rhetorical sense, there was not much action or follow up other than some NATO naval activity in the Black Sea. In the aftermath of this crisis the U.S. administration actually launched what is known as a reset policy to fix relations with Russia and open a new page in bilateral relations.

Although many welcomed this approach by U.S. President Barack Obama, there were some, in particular in Central and Eastern Europe, who got extremely nervous about the situation. In an open letter, almost two dozens former presidents , prime ministers and foreign ministers from Central and Eastern European states expressed their concern about what happened in Georgia and wrote: “Many countries were deeply disturbed to see NATO stand by as Russia violated the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris, and the territorial integrity of a country that was a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council all in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders.

Despite the efforts and significant contribution of new members, today NATO seems weaker than when Turkey joined. People in many in countries perceive NATO to be less and less relevant, and we feel it. Although we are full members, people question whether NATO would be willing and able to come to our defense in some future crises. These former policy makers also openly expressed what they think about Russian ambitions in foreign and security policy. They wrote: “Our hopes that relations with Russia would improve and that Moscow would finally fully accept our complete sovereignty and independence after joining NATO and the EU have not been fulfilled. Instead, Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th century agenda with 21st century tactics and methods. At a global level, Russia has become, on most issues, a status quo power. But at a regional level and vis-a-vis our nations, it increasingly acts as a revisionist one.”


As everybody knows by now, the reset resulted in a huge disappointment. Obama tried to demonstrate flexibility for Russia but relations did not improve as expected. In two different theaters the U.S. and Russia found themselves on different sides of the conflicts, and in each of these crises Russia continued to test U.S. commitment. The conflict in Syria is one of these theaters. Despite a very harsh rhetorical reaction by U.S. foreign policy makers to the Russian veto at the U.N. Security Council and its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime, the U.S. did not commit much in terms of projection of power.

Following this, in the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, despite very strong economic and diplomatic measures, Putin probably found the action not deterrent enough to change his course of action in Ukraine. This time, for the first time since World War II, the map of Europe was changed through force. The Budapest Memorandum that was signed by the major powers in 1994 about Ukrainian territorial integrity was violated. However, for Putin, the damage to Russia’s economy and diplomatic isolation was somehow tolerable in these conditions. Putin might one more time realize that the U.S. will not commit to the security and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Finally, Russia has engaged in a major military buildup in Syria, which has been considered a game changer by many observers of Middle Eastern politics. Its airstrikes have mostly not targeted the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), but rather the Syrian opposition in most instances, some of whom are supported by the U.S. and Western countries. This can be another test by Putin to see U.S.’s commitment. Whether the U.S. will support or defend the groups that it provides assistance to may play an important role in Putin’s next step in his foreign and security policy.

All these ups and downs in relations and Putin’s testing the waters, if it was his intention, reminds us of a pessimistic voice, this time from Donaldson’s version of the Cuban Missile Crisis. During one of the debates of the U.S. Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExCom), the committee that acted as the strategic advisory body during the Cuban Missile Crisis, then Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who played a significant role in the determination of U.S. policy during the Cold War, provides his analysis of Soviet policy making. As one of the most hawkish personalities in ExCom, he says: “Gentlemen, for the last 15 years I’ve fought at this table alongside your predecessors in the struggle against the Soviets. Now I do not wish to seem melodramatic, but I do wish to impress upon you a lesson I learned with bitter tears and great sacrifice. The Soviets understand only one language: Action. Respect only one word: Force.” Everybody in the world hopes that reason and dialogue, not the analysis of Mr. Acheson, is right. However, we cannot avoid remembering what JFK said to his brother.

[Daily Sabah, October 24, 2015]

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