The absence of commemorative events marking the occasion could easily blind the ignorant to the fact October 1962 was something of a pivotal turning point in recent history. Yes, on the 5th of that month 60 years ago, two significant pop cultural events occurred that elevated Britain out of its post-colonial hangover and gave the nation – and eventually the whole Western world – the kiss of life: the simultaneous release of the first Beatles single, ‘Love Me Do’, and the first James Bond film, ‘Dr No’. But the importance of these releases in shaping the 60s wasn’t immediately apparent, what with global eyes distracted by an island 80 nautical miles off the coast of Florida. Mind you, Cuba had hogged its fair share of headlines since the overthrow of President Batista by Fidel Castro and his band of hairy revolutionaries in 1959; the Bay of Pigs fiasco had only taken place the year before 1962, of course, and when Cuba’s new regime found its Faustian pact with the USSR required setting aside land for Soviet missiles aimed at America, the US response to this encroachment on its doorstep was to blockade Cuba and mobilise its troops into war mode.
As is obvious due to the fact we’re all still currently here (for the moment, anyway), the anticipated apocalypse many were preparing for in the autumn of 1962 was averted via a staring contest between Kennedy and Khrushchev; the Soviet leader blinked first and the missiles were shipped back to the USSR. Barely a year later, Kennedy was gone courtesy of an assassin’s bullet and Khrushchev himself was ousted a year after that. The Cold War’s most dangerous impasse passed into history and the world breathed a sigh of relief, turning its attention to Swinging for a bit. Yet the Cuban Missile Crisis, particularly since Tsar Vladimir decided to revive old enmities between East and West, remains a cautionary historical reference point whenever nuclear strikes are evoked as a loaded threat to escalate a conflict such as that currently taking place in Ukraine; Putin’s media cronies get off on this kind of sabre-rattling and Sleepy Joe himself was momentarily prodded awake to resurrect the ghost of Cuban missiles by claiming we were closer to the prospect of Armageddon right now that at any time since 1962.
There are numerous differences between today’s Cold War franchise reboot and the original series, however. The US and the Soviets were engaged in a long-running ideological battle in the second half of the 20th century that often translated into a geographical one. Their tussles on foreign fields mirrored the global clashes over territory between the superpowers of the previous century, the British and the French, but Soviet and American collisions tended to be by proxy. The Soviets would provoke and back a coup in Asia or South America and the Americans would do likewise, with both superpowers providing their chosen side with military and financial assistance in a constant tit-for-tat engagement; but whenever either the US or the USSR sent their own troops in to the disputed territory, both became bogged down for years. It was easier to pull the strings of the natives. Also, unlike the 19th century, there was no defining endgame along the lines of Waterloo, probably because if there had been, the nature of the weaponry would have wiped out the majority of the human race. Cuba in 1962 could have been that endgame, but the genuine catastrophe the planet was poised on the cusp of 60 years ago has no real parallels with Ukraine today.
Right now, evoking the Cuban Missile Crisis seems to be another scaremongering tactic as the 20th century’s two leftover superpowers are engaged in a pissing contest like a pair of incontinent pensioners; but both are well-versed in reciting Project Fear narratives to get what they want, and the recent attempts by Vlad to call-up every Russian male of fighting age (or ‘reservists’) has prompted thousands earmarked as cannon-fodder to head for the hills – or in the direction of the nearest border. The sudden imposition of the draft has widened divisions between the hawks and the doves in Russia, backfiring badly and failing to unite the country against an alleged common enemy; it looks like precisely what it is – a desperate throw of the dice by a man confronted by the failure of his own overstretched ambitions. Putin’s invasion has proven to not quite be the swift walkover it was painted as before the tanks rolled into Ukraine, and lingering memories of past military blunders that ended up as prolonged, vainglorious exercises in imperial futility (i.e. Afghanistan) are resurfacing as the Russian forces in Ukraine are belatedly realising they’re up against the kind of fearless resistance they didn’t expect.
Saturday morning’s explosion on the Kerch Bridge, the main artery from Russia to Crimea used to ferry troops, ammunition and equipment from the Motherland to units in the south of Ukraine, leaves another chink in the armour of Putin’s war machine and could be of potential significance. Erected following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the impressive construction is both symbolic and strategic, and even if the damage done is repaired in record time the incident nevertheless stands as an important propaganda victory for the Ukrainians as well as one more blow to beleaguered Russian morale. After all, it’s embarrassing enough for the invaders that their own abandoned weaponry is being used against them; according to the latest estimates, over half of Ukraine’s tank fleet currently in the field has been captured from the enemy. Some estimates have speculated the Ukrainian forces have helped themselves to upwards of 440 Russian Main Battle Tanks and the best part of 650 other armoured vehicles, with fleeing Russian troops failing to destroy the equipment they left behind, so speedy and demoralising was their withdrawal.
The vital logistical supply route the Kerch Bridge has been throughout the Ukraine conflict means the blast that collapsed part of it leaves Russian forces occupying the southern regions of Ukraine dependent upon a solitary railway line from Krasnodar to Melitopol as a transport link; following the attack on the Kerch Bridge, it seems this route too now falls within range of the Ukrainians. The Russians had long imagined the Bridge well beyond the reach of Ukrainian forces, along with the rest of Crimea; the major assault on this ‘safe space’ is bound to have shaken Russian (over) confidence even further, coming as it has hot on the heels of recent explosions in Russian-held Crimean locations such as the naval air base in Saky, giving Ukraine the belief it can retake Crimea. And whilst responsibility for the Bridge blast has yet to be owned by Kyiv, a tweet from one of President Zelensky’s advisers proudly proclaimed, ‘Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything belonging to the Russian occupation must be expelled.’
Whether the forced conscription of those civilians the authorities can actually catch before they escape Russia, or four regions of Ukraine being annexed via the signing of dubious ‘treaties’ by Vlad, or the threatened deployment of chemical and nuclear weapons, the battle being conducted away from the battlefield comes across as having the same air of desperation as the actual military campaign. Dissenting voices are apparently now emanating even from within the Kremlin itself, though Putin’s persecution complex means they’ll only be interpreted as treasonous, as is all criticism of the great dictator. Putin’s Soviet predecessor Nikita Khrushchev was removed via an internal coup largely organised by Leonid Brezhnev; but less power was invested in the person of the Soviet Premier than rests in the hands of the Russian Presidency, with Putin himself being the author of so many rewritten elements of the constitution that has strengthened his position over the years. It remains to be seen how much this current crisis will weaken that position; all depends on how it goes. And at the moment, it’s not going well.
© The Editor
3 thoughts on “A BRIDGE TOO FAR”
You get the feeling that the Ukraine issue may be moving towards a denouement in a reasonably short term now. With Putin now apparently having little other than nukes to throw at the problem and the Ukranians becoming more emboldened with their supplies of sophisticated weaponry and intelligence, something’s got to give.
We always have to be alert to the news balance we receive, or lack of balance, but the picture presented has certainly shifted in recent weeks, none of it in Putin’s favour. We have no real indication how strong any anti-Putin factions may be in Russia, but it’s hard to imagine that the body of his party is entirely content with how things are playing out. Whether they have the strength to oust him will be unknown until they do, but they’ve done it before in less fraught circumstances, so that’s not impossible.
If an end can be achieved without resort to nuclear, that will be a major bonus: not only for what it saves locally, but also for the power it will give to the continuity of ‘mutually assured destruction’ as an ongoing influence for good, even in circumstances of extreme high tensions. If even small tactical nukes are used, then all bets are off, we really can’t speculate where the outrage of that may lead.
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I remember the last post I wrote on this subject spoke about Putin’s hesistancy in mobilising the Russian public onto a war footing due to fears they might not respond accordingly. Since opting to do so anyway, the flight of those called-up to fight has perhaps shown in this case his hesistancy was vindicated.
It’s possible that Ukraine could turn out to be Russia’s Vietnam – that ‘draft resistance’ was the point which demonstrated to the USA and the wider West that conscription is no longer feasible and that only a full-time professional military can work. Fifty years later, it seems the many of the Russian people are now saying the same thing to their leaders.
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