Joe Biden Vladimir Putin call
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets virtually via a secure video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, December 7, 2021. (Adam Schultz/The White House via AP) Credit: AP

Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Guns of August made such a deep impression on President John F. Kennedy that he asked his cabinet members, National Security Council staff, and all Army officers to read it. And when the world faced Armageddon over the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the book’s lessons informed the commander in chief’s decision-making.

Insisting that “we are not going to bungle into war,” Kennedy turned aside the hawkish recommendations of the military in favor of deft back-channel diplomacy. In doing so, he de-escalated a crisis that perched on the razor’s edge toward nuclear holocaust. A student of history, the young president saw the peril of falling victim to rigid plans and set attitudes. As Tuchman put it, “The impetus of existing plans is always stronger than the impulse to change.”

We may be facing a similar danger today as Russian and American leaders ramp up threats over Ukraine and Moscow amasses a strong military presence on the Ukrainian border; according to U.S. intelligence reports, it may soon scale up to 175,000 troops.

If not handled skillfully, the conflict could spiral out of control. “Since 1939, the specter of an all-out conventional war in Europe between two major militaries has never been greater,” asserts the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul.

The saber rattling is getting louder by the day.

“If Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned, adding that NATO was “prepared to reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that Moscow would respond with “retaliatory measures to redress the military-strategic balance” if Western military aid to Ukraine increased. He then echoed Blinken’s language, saying that such actions “will have the most serious consequences.”

Both sides risk backing each other into corners, leaving no other option but to lash out in a quickly escalating series of blows and counterblows. In his typically thuggish way, Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps raising the stakes with his “red line” demands that the West formally abandon Ukraine à la the 1938 appeasement of Hitler over Czechoslovakia. But as with Hitler, Putin has no apparent off-ramp or Plan B, just another of his trademark high-stakes games of chicken. Washington and its European allies find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they can’t do nothing, lest it reveal NATO as a paper tiger. On the other hand, they are not going to go to war over Ukraine, a NATO aspirant but not a member.

“This looks like Putin is testing the waters,” says Thomas Maertens, a former senior State Department Russia expert and White House official in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “He sent ‘little green men’ into Crimea while denying they were Russian to see if the West was going to respond militarily,” he told me. “His future moves will likely depend on what he believes he can get away with.” Maertens noted that “we have not guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but we should make clear that this issue is important and could result in enormous costs for Russia.”

McFaul and others advocate a hard line in which we “should spell out publicly and now—not after another Russian military intervention—a package of serious comprehensive sanctions to be implemented in response to new Russian aggression. Doing so would tie the West’s hands and compel immediate action if Russia launched a new military strike.”

The alternative (refraining from hammering out a sanctions plan) would force NATO’s hand at the last minute as Russian troops swarmed into Ukraine—too late to constrain Moscow.

In either case, a hair-trigger “Guns of August” scenario of rapid escalations could cascade into armed conflict between NATO and Russian forces. More than with virtually any other national security crisis, President Joe Biden needs to try to calm Putin down behind the scenes via direct contact, but also through back-channel diplomacy using allies and perhaps even private-sector individuals. With his many years serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the president possesses the knowledge and skills to do this.

Americans tend to overlook or dismiss Moscow’s historical fears of “encirclement.” Russia was invaded by most of its neighbors and others at one time or other in its history. That historical fear, and the fact that they operate in their own information bubble, makes Russian leaders reflexively paranoid and belligerent. Add to this NATO expansion that over the years has brought in nine former Soviet republics and bloc allies, and Western support for the so-called “color revolutions” in Ukraine and eastern Europe.

What must give Putin apoplexy, in particular, is a June 2021 statement by NATO that said, in part, “Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process … free from outside interference.” It was by no means a commitment to admit Ukraine, but nonetheless a big red flag to runaway Kremlin paranoids.

An essential feature of Russia’s neuroses is an instinctual sense of insecurity, George F. Kennan, author of the Cold War–era containment doctrine, maintained. Kennan later argued that NATO expansion would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western tendencies in Russian opinion.” And Bill Clinton’s lead person on Russia, Strobe Talbot, cautioned, “An expanded NATO that excludes Russia will not serve to contain Russia’s retrograde, expansionist impulses.”

So what to do now? Dust off those 1950s design plans for fallout shelters?

Not yet. Rather, dust off archival records of how JFK handled Nikita Khrushchev, another impulsive Russian leader not given to off-ramps or Plans B.

Brushing aside the hawkish recommendations by his National Security Council staff, the president carried out back-channel diplomacy via an American TV journalist and the Soviet embassy’s KGB chief, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador, mostly carried out over meals at D.C. restaurants. For his part, Khrushchev ended up cutting out his own hawkish Politburo in reaching a face-saving resolution. The rest, as we say, is history.

I witnessed such high-wire back-channel diplomacy from my perch at the State Department as aide to its top official dealing with European affairs. Over six months in 1989, five east European communist regimes collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came down. Confronted with multiple crises each day, there was little time for plodding bureaucratic policy deliberations. The same went for the fast-moving train of German reunification. The State Department’s cautious bureaucracy advised tapping the brakes. The history-sensitive British and French did not favor German reunification. But the Germans were on their own timetable. Meanwhile, the situation in Moscow was unpredictable, Mikhail Gorbachev’s position precarious. Events risked getting out of hand.

In the face of these fast-moving developments, President George H. W. Bush relied on a small group of advisers to carry out his own direct back-channel diplomacy, mostly through telephone calls with European leaders. The transcriptions of these conversations were kept in a highly restricted channel to which I was privileged to have access. Bush masterfully reassured Gorbachev, while bringing our allies on board with a consensus political framework. As a result, peace prevailed as the map of Europe changed dramatically along with the fall of communism.

Putin is plainly playing an imperialist hand, rooted in traditional Russian paranoia and aggression. He may be itching to engineer a phony crisis as an excuse to invade Ukraine. The United States and its allies must stand firm. But they would be wise to utilize back-channel means to try to bring about a de-escalation of tensions out of the public eye, which would provide a face-saving exit for Putin while safeguarding Ukraine’s sovereignty. The onus is on him. It’s admittedly a tall order, but it’s been done before, as we witnessed with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the collapse of communism in Europe.

To stay on the present course would be to risk the kind of posturing and escalating gamesmanship that brought on a world war. Barbara Tuchman warned us about that: “Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers—danger, death, and live ammunition.”

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Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.