Obama Borrows From the JFK Playbook on Ukraine

President Obama appears to be using a strategic approach to the Ukrainian situation that is similar in many respects to that employed by his Democratic Party predecessor, President John F. Kennedy, in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In both cases, the two leaders were dealing with secret, unexpected, armed missions launched by aggressive Russian leaders against Western interests, with little precedent in both cases on how to handle the crises. Obviously the Cuban missile affair was a far more perilous showdown than what is now happening in the Ukraine. The Cuban affair had doomsday-type consequences. The invasion of Crimea does not entail any possibility of nuclear exchanges between two nations. But in other respects, there are parallels for Obama.

First, Obama has resorted to rallying his European allies around a common strategy to confront the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. So, too, did President Kennedy, gather together his Western nation counterparts to present a joint stance against the then Kremlin chieftan, Nikita Khrushchev. Second, Obama has called into session the most important regional security organization NATO, to devise ways to thwart the Russian occupation of Crimea, as well as asking the European Union to consider broad financial aid to Ukraine. In a like-minded move, President Kennedy convened the key regional body within the Americas, the Organization of American States (OAS), to issue an ultimatum to the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba. Third, in both their disputes, the two presidents sought out the United Nations to condemn the actions of Moscow and ask the Security Council to consider sending in neutral UN peacemakers to supervise a possible settlement of the conflicts. Fourth, given his limited options, especially that force was not possible, Obama has taken action to cancel US participation in the G-8 meeting in Sochi and threatened to halt trade talks with Moscow as well as place economic sanctions on Russia. Kennedy, for his side, famously instituted a far more draconian measure, a quarantine around the island of Cuba, to intercept Soviet destroyers from docking in Cuba.

At the same time, both men looked to the legitimate concerns raised by the Russian leadership in both crises and sought ways to give the Kremlin a means to back down from its military action without being humiliated. Kennedy employed back-channel emissaries as well as often inconsistent cable traffic to get the word to Khrushchev that there was a way out. For his part, Obama used his previously civil post-Cold War relations with Russia to phone Putin directly and talk about the latter's preoccupations. Now he is sending Secretary of State Kerry to meet with the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.

In the end, Kennedy was finally able to work out a deal with the USSR over Cuba whereby Washington gave a guarantee that it would not invade Cuba in exchange for a Soviet dismantling and withdrawal of its rockets from the island. Meantime Obama has, in his turn, suggested a way that the Russians can end its confrontation -- namely, have the Russian troops now in guard duty all over Crimea return to their bases in Sevastopol, and then have international observers put into Crimea to assure that there are no attacks against Russian citizens within the territory. If this happens, further talks could ensue to persuade the Russians not to encroach on Russian-friendly areas of eastern Ukraine or annex Crimea or recognize its independence. Still, whatever happens, the lessons from both momentous events is that the US must be prepared, as JFK was, to face down the Russians but at the same time take into account their realistic concerns and offer them a respectful exit strategy.