Coming: A New Cuban Missile Crisis?

“Is history about to repeat itself?” asks Clément Daniez of the French newsmagazine Le Point in his article published on-line today, Russians and Americans Replay the Cuban Missile Crisis. Vladimiar Putin has already explicitly spoken of such a thing: last October (2007) he warned that Washington’s plan to set up an anti-missile shield in Europe, with the radar in the Czech Republic and the interceptor missiles themselves in Poland, was setting the stage for a similar sort of serious confrontation between the two world powers as occurred in October, 1962. Of course, in the meantime the Bush administration has gone ahead anyway, as Condoleezza Rice was in Prague on July 8 to sign the agreement with the Czech government for setting up the radar.

That was a necessary step, but not sufficient: there is considerable opposition among the Czech electorate to the building of the radar, so that agreement might not gain the necessary ratification in the Czech parliament. Further, there is also considerable political uncertainty in Poland about going ahead with the plan. (I think all the Central European leaders involved know full well that, although this is a pet Bush administration project, it is by no means guaranteed to be something an Obama administration will be very enthusiastic about – so why not just wait and see how things develop on the American side before sticking your neck out too far? But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Nevertheless, new Russian president Dimitri Medvedev made clear in public statements that his government would be upset even at just the signing of the accord with the Czechs, and would definitely be coming up with counter-measures if that went ahead. And here is counter-measure number one: according to the Danish business daily Børsen (USA Warns Russia About Cuba), the news service Izvestia recently reported that Russian military authorities were contemplating having their Tu-160 long-range bombers (nicknamed according to Børsen the “White Swan”) land on Cuba for re-fueling, as a way to increase their capabilities to patrol and project a presence generally in the North Atlantic. (The Le Figaro article adds that the Tu-95MC “Bear” bomber could also take advantage of this.)

This has brought a stern reaction from a key American official, namely US Air Force General Norton Schwartz, about to become Air Force Chief of Staff, who declared before a Senate committee (convened to examine his nomination for the Air Force’s highest post; the following is translated back to English from French) “If they do that, I think that we should remain firm and indicate that that would be something that crosses a threshold, that would cross a red line for the United States of America.”

Now, no Russian nuclear bombers have yet been sent to re-fuel in Cuba – but the agreement with Prague is signed, so that the anti-missile-shield process is going ahead. Will those Russian bombers soon show up?

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