The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 stands out as not only one of the most dangerous moments in human history, but also as the most thoroughly researched case of a confrontation between two great powers that ended up being peacefully resolved. The wealth of evidence and quality of analysis that have been produced by participants and scholars of the October 1962 crisis make the latter an indispensable case study for anyone interested in management of any inter-state conflict.
The current conflict over Nagorny Karabakh is no exception. There are, of course, profound differences between the two conflicts — the absence of nuclear weapons in the Armenian and Azeri arsenals being the most obvious and important. And, yet, there are a number of valuable lessons that parties to the Karabakh conflict should learn from the 1962 crisis:
First, Armenian and Azeri leaders should review their militaries’ routines to weed out those contingency SOPs that may lead to escalation of a crisis into a war against their orders. The 1962 crisis set in motion a number of such routines that almost plunged the USA and USSR into a war, including arming fighter aviation with nuclear missiles and permission granted to commanders to use nuclear weapons without approval by the head of state if under an attack that disrupts communications with superiors. In addition to review and revision of their own contingency routines, the parties to the Karabakh conflict should familiarize themselves with their opponent’s SOPs.
Second, parties to the Karabakh conflict should keep in mind that escalation can acquire its own logic. Had U.S. President John F. Kennedy ordered a ground invasion of Cuba, the Soviets could have retaliated by striking U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey, thereby escalating the conflict to a nuclear war, according to Graham Allison, one of the most thoughtful scholars of the 1962 crisis. Armenian and Azeri leaders should consider directing strategic games specifically designed to identify points of no return in different escalation scenarios.
Third, a hotline should be established in Yerevan and Baku. In October 1962 Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev made a number of urgent important decisions that had to be preceded by gauging the opponent’s reaction, but they had no way to communicate directly and discreetly. Today, there is no publicly known hotline between the presidential offices in Yerevan and Baku, so the leaders may also be unable to communicate directly and candidly if a crisis ruptures peacetime channels of communications. This needs to be rectified.
Fourth, neither Azeri nor Armenian side should harbor hopes that the opponent will back down. Khrushchev knew about the American superiority in strategic nuclear weapons and backed down when the Cuban crisis peaked. Neither side in the Karabakh conflict enjoys overwhelming military superiority, and therefore, should not count on the opponent backing down in case of escalation.
Fifth, both sides should avoid cornering the opponent. That Khrushchev was able to back down during the crisis was partly a result of a deliberate strategy by Kennedy who built pressure, but left a face-saving way out. Armenian and Azeri leaders should not only consider which of their actions may corner the opponent, but also how to avoid cornering themselves.
Sixth, Armenian and Azeri leaders also should factor in reaction of key stakeholders on both sides of the conflict just as the USSR and USA had to take into account interests of their allies in October 1962. For one, Baku should not assume that the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic will blindly follow Republic of Armenia’s lead. Karabakh Armenians — whose representatives dominate Armenia’s power establishment — will not concede to any change that would threaten their survival.
Seventh, Azeri and Armenian leaders should avoid adventurist moves. If fully implemented, Khrushchev’s decision to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba would have narrowed the U.S.-Soviet nuclear gap. However, implementation of that decision was poorly planned and its failure contributed to Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964. Azeri and Armenian leaders should avoid adventurism, keeping in mind that a failure may lead not only to ouster, but also to exile in addition to disastrous consequences for their countries.
A new war over Karabakh would be much more devastating than the one fought 20 years ago. In fact some of the weapons — that the sides have acquired — can wreak havoc that would be as disastrous for these small nations as a limited U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange would have been for the American and Soviet peoples in 1962. Institutionalizing lessons of the Cuban missile crisis would help leaders on both sides of the Karabakh conflict to avert an ‘accidental’ devastating war. If, of course, they wish to avoid it.