Could World War III start over Ukraine? Probably not — at least not in the short run. There would be little appetite in the broader region for a military showdown with Russia, and Ukraine would have to fall back on its own forces. But the consequences could still be dire, both for Kyiv and the region. Ukraine might not survive as a sovereign state. Other predatory powers might draw their own lessons. And — for all the intentions to the contrary — there would always remain the possibility of inadvertent escalation that may yet turn the Russo-Ukrainian conflict into a broader conflagration and upend the European order as we know it.
All of this will make you reach for the bookshelf to see if we encountered anything similar in the past, and how we managed to survive. It’s under “B.”
The Berlin crisis (1958 to 1961) offers important lessons for the present dilemmas in Ukraine. The conflict over Berlin pitched Moscow against Washington, bringing the two to the brink of a nuclear war, but Soviet and American leaders eventually found enough wisdom to come back from the precipice.
Khrushchev vividly described Berlin as the testicles of the West, which he could squeeze to make the Americans squeal. Behind such bravado, though, was a deep sense of insecurity about Moscow’s deteriorating position in East Germany in general and in East Berlin in particular. Faced with the grim realities of life under communism, the East Germans (especially the younger professionals) were voting with their feet, crossing the street into West Berlin — a Western outpost in the heart of communist East Germany. In 1957 alone some 250,000 left, leaving East Germany on the brink of ruin. The situation called for an urgent solution.
On Nov. 27, 1958, Khrushchev produced his so-called Berlin ultimatum, giving the United States and its allies six months to sign a peace treaty with Germany that would lead to their withdrawal from West Berlin. If they refused, he threatened, Moscow would sign its own separate treaty with East Germany, which (by implication) could then expel the Western powers from the city.
Faced with a predictably negative Western reaction, the Soviet leader subsequently extended the “deadline” by another six months. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, while firm on Berlin, tried to massage Khrushchev’s ego by inviting him for a visit to the United States. Khrushchev’s trip there, and talks with Eisenhower at Camp David, even fed hopes of an early end to the Cold War. These hopes were shattered, though, when on May 1, 1960, Soviet forces shot down an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers. Khrushchev demanded Eisenhower’s apology, received none, and stormed out in rage from the four-power summit in Paris, convened in a bid to lessen the East-West tensions.
When later that year John F. Kennedy was elected president, Khrushchev agreed to meet him in Vienna. He had hoped to intimidate the youthful president into yielding to his demands on Berlin. Before setting out for Austria, Khrushchev held a council in the Kremlin, where he spelled out his approach to the Berlin problem. The key question for him was how hard to push the Americans without accidentally causing war.
That “son of a bitch” Kennedy, Khrushchev told his colleagues, understood that “the correlation of forces has changed” and therefore America had to take the Soviet Union seriously. By this, he meant that the United States would not risk a suicidal war with the Soviet Union, armed with a thermonuclear arsenal, over a bubble of Western control in the heart of the Soviet bloc that Moscow could easily pop. Khrushchev just did not believe it. Nor did he think that the United Kingdom and France, which also occupied West Berlin, would support a general war in Europe over the matter that could easily turn nuclear. “They are smart people, and they understand this,” he concluded.
But there were doubts, too. The Soviet leader just could not be sure that — contrary to common sense — the United States would not resort to war to defend its position in Berlin. “They will try to scare us with war — of course, they are trying to scare us,” Khrushchev reasoned. Was it all bluff? “The most dangerous [country] is America. It really has the power … One cannot rely on America because their decisions have no logic, but they are made under influence of particular groups and a random combination of factors.”
Khrushchev had to weigh his chances: How hard could he push to get what he wanted without triggering a war that he most certainly wanted to avoid? It came down to a calculation of probability, and here Khrushchev gave the following assessment. “Any business,” he said, “is risky. And this risk that we are taking — it’s justified. I’d say, if we were to take a percentage, it’s more than 95 percent chance that there won’t be a war.”
95 percent? Not bad for a gambler. This calculation underpinned Khrushchev’s hawkish approach to his summit with Kennedy in June 1961. As he told his colleagues beforehand, “Politics is politics. If we want to conduct our policy, and for our policy to be recognized and respected, and feared, we must be firm.”
But the American president did not yield to pressure. The summit was a grim draw. “It is up to the U.S. to decide whether there will be war or peace,” Khrushchev said in conclusion, adding ominously that his decision to sign a peace treaty was “firm and irrevocable.” In response, Kennedy merely observed that “it would be a cold winter.”
Yet when push came to shove, instead of putting his probability calculation to the test to see if he could coerce the Americans into his preferred solution of the German problem, Khrushchev folded. On Aug. 13, 1961, East German authorities, acting with Soviet support, drew barbed wire along the perimeter of West Berlin. The temporary barriers were later replaced with a hideous concrete wall that “solved” the problem of the refugees. Henceforth anyone trying to flee risked death. The window to freedom was slammed shut.
This was not an elegant solution from Moscow’s perspective. The United States and its allies remained entrenched in West Berlin. But the Soviet leader decided not to risk the possibility of a conflict — the less than 5 percent chance that things might go awry. Was it really only 5 percent? No one could really tell. No one could guarantee that, once escalation began, it would not spiral out of control.
Later that fall, the Soviets and the Americans nearly came to blows over access rights at one of the checkpoints along the newly constructed wall. The tank stand-off at Checkpoint Charlie was a pointer to the dangers of inadvertent escalation. Fortunately, both sides had enough common sense to slowly retreat from the abyss. The wall remained in place for nearly 30 years, a forbidding symbol of the Cold War and a reminder that as much as each side had riding on its preferred outcome, they had no other realistic option but to retreat and compromise.
Much in the current stand-off between Russia and the West over Ukraine is reminiscent of the earlier Cold War conflict over Germany. By building up a military force along Ukraine’s borders, President Vladimir Putin is seeking to coerce the West into accepting his demands, which include official assurances from NATO that Ukraine (and Georgia, for good measure) would never be admitted into the alliance.
Khrushchev’s words still echo through the Kremlin corridors. “Politics is politics. If we want to conduct our policy, and for our policy to be recognized and respected, and feared, we must be firm.”
Yet, like Khrushchev then, Putin today is secretly weighing his chances of success. What if his gamble failed and he had to either de-escalate (and so lose credibility) or carry out his threats and invade Ukraine? What would the West do? What are the chances of a broader regional conflagration?
These are all great imponderables. For despite President Joe Biden’s preoccupation with China, despite America’s recent disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and despite the exploitable fissures inside NATO and the European Union, the West’s reaction is difficult to foresee. There may be a 95 percent chance that Putin would get away with an invasion, perhaps even an annexation of Donbas. He managed it before in Crimea and faced tolerable consequences. But the other 5 percent weighs heavier and heavier as the stakes grow larger and larger.
A smart Western policy would be to maintain this uncertainty in Putin’s mind. This would not mean reckless saber-rattling. The task at hand is to avoid war. But the West should remember that a war can only be avoided through deterrence and polite but firm refusal to yield to military pressure. Leave it to the Russians to fire the first shot. In 1961 Khrushchev wisely decided not to. Putin is more than his match in intelligence and common sense.
There is, however, another side to the conflict in Ukraine. The key lesson of the Berlin crisis is that inelegant outcomes are sometimes the only viable outcomes. The construction of the Berlin Wall 60 years ago was a human tragedy that helped to avoid a bigger tragedy still — an East-West war over Germany. This lesson should not be lost on policymakers today — in the West as much as in Russia and Ukraine. A frozen conflict is far better than an open war.
Russia has made a series of security demands, some of which (like rolling NATO’s military deployments back to where they were in 1997 or guarantees that NATO would not engage in military activities in Eastern Europe) are clearly going nowhere. Others (including confidence-building measures in the Black Sea and the Baltic and a new agreement on intermediate-range missiles) are certainly worth exploring. Russian diplomats have claimed that their demands come as a package: take it or leave it, they say, and accept responsibility for the outcome (war). It’s a militant gamble, and it ought to be met with careful, calibrated diplomacy and active involvement by the United States. It is important to unpack the Russian proposals and perhaps salvage something from them that will give Putin a dignified way out of the unpleasant situation he presently finds himself in. Such negotiations are unlikely to deliver breakthroughs. At best, we can perhaps reach a stalemate that will persist for 10, 20, even 30 years. But if the Cold War has taught us anything, it is that it often pays to be patient.
Sergey Radchenko is the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
Image: U.S. Army