Russia Envoy to U.S.: Channel That Stopped Nuclear War 60 Years Ago Is Dead

A secret, direct channel between the Kremlin and the White House helped to prevent nuclear war 60 years ago, as Moscow and Washington engaged in a nuclear standoff known in the United States as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Today, however, with U.S.-Russia relations at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War and new talk of nuclear contingencies emerging from both sides, Moscow's envoy in Washington has told Newsweek that no such communication now exists, setting the stage for a new and dangerous era for the two nations, and for the rest of the world.

Anatoly Antonov, Russia's ambassador to the U.S., recalled the words of his predecessor, Anatoly Dobrynin, who said in his time that "the Cuban missile crisis revealed the mortal danger of a direct armed confrontation of the two great powers, a confrontation headed off on the brink of war thanks to both sides' timely and agonizing realization of the disastrous consequences."

Antonov also quoted U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who, shortly after the October 1962 crisis resolved with an agreement for Moscow to withdraw missiles from Cuba and Washington to pull back its own weapons in Turkey, told Soviet Council of Ministers First Deputy Chairman Anastas Mikoyan, "What we have now is, although our two countries do not challenge each other directly, we keep running into each other almost everywhere, which in our nuclear age is fraught with serious dangers for world peace."

"These words of the former U.S. president can be quite legitimately used to describe the present state of relations between Russia and the United States," Antonov told Newsweek. "The world is once again speeding up to approach the line with nothing behind it."

"The undeniable advantage of that time was a continuously operating confidential channel between Anatoly Dobrynin and Robert Kennedy," he added, referring to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president's brother and adviser, who played a critical role in negotiating an end to the affair. "It allowed the Kremlin and the White House to relay information to each other in a timely manner, do appropriate analysis and clarify positions of the two states."

But Antonov said the two powers were now at a considerable disadvantage, as "today, the infrastructure of our communication with the Americans has been demolished."

Antonov laid the blame on President Joe Biden's administration.

"The attempts of Russian diplomats in Washington to re-establish such contacts have been futile," he said. "The administration is unwilling to talk with us as equals."

"The Cuban Missile Crisis resulted in the restoration of a status quo that existed around Cuba before the deployment of Soviet missiles," Antonov added. "It is impossible to resolve the current situation in the same way."

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An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed as U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium at the White House campus on June 22 in Washington, DC. No official contacts between the leaders have been reported since Russia launched a war against neighboring Ukraine in February of this year. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The last reported conversation between Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin occurred on February 12, two weeks before the Russian leader launched a war against neighboring Ukraine. The Kremlin's decision came after months of failed talks in which Moscow had demanded that Washington and its allies withdraw military infrastructure from former Soviet states now members of the NATO alliance.

Antonov argued that Russia was "struggling not against Ukraine but on its territory — for equal relations, a world order based on international law, the UN Charter and practical implementation of the principle of indivisible security for all."

"I would like to emphasize that in the present conditions a return to the previous state of affairs is unacceptable," he added, "when threats to Russia's national security were mounting on our western borders."

But he questioned whether Washington was "ready for a serious professional conversation on international peace and stability." He pointed to the new National Security Strategy published by the White House last week as evidence of how the U.S. was only doubling down on its effort to enforce what he referred to as "the so-called ruled-based order." He called it "a kind of fantasy that Washington has dreamt up and is imposing on the whole world," and the notion that "the entire international community must unite in the fight against China and Russia."

"Cooperation is only acceptable with allies and those who follow the U.S. policy lead," Antonov said of the document. "The Strategy offers a distorted picture that all the troubles in the world erupted because of Russia's special military operation. Before that, everything was allegedly fine."

"The Americans plan to continue cultivating alliances against China and Russia in critical areas," he added. "This is all backed up by an ideological basis — a confrontation between democracies and autocracies. Such an approach disavows the White House's claim about its unwillingness to divide the world into blocs and engage in a new Cold War."

Biden has repeatedly disavowed any plan to pursue a new Cold War-like conflict with either China or Russia, but he has nonetheless singled out these two powers as the top two challengers to the U.S. on the world stage. Tensions with Moscow have hit an especially critical point, as Putin has repeatedly warned he would use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory, which he now claims include four contested Ukrainian regions annexed after an internationally unrecognized referendum held last month.

Biden himself stated earlier this month that "we have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis," and that, for the "first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of the nuclear weapons if, in fact, things continue down the path they've been going."

Biden asserted that Putin, whom the U.S. leader claimed to "know fairly well," is "not joking when he talks about the potential use of tactical and nuclear weapons."

Reached for comment by Newsweek last week, a White House spokesperson said that "the President's comments reinforce how seriously we take these threats about nuclear weapons — as we have done when the Russians have made these threats throughout the conflict."

"The kind of irresponsible rhetoric we have seen is no way for the leader of a nuclear armed state to speak," the spokesperson added. "But if the Cuban missile crisis has taught us anything, it is the value of reducing nuclear risk, not brandishing it."

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A Belgian F-16 jet fighter takes part in the NATO Air Nuclear drill "Steadfast Noon" at the Kleine-Brogel air base in Belgium on October 18. The 30-nation alliance has stressed that the "routine, recurring training activity," which runs until October 30, was planned before Russia launched its war in Ukraine and is not linked to the current situation. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

But Antonov argued that it was the U.S. that had disrupted the nuclear order, not just in expanding the NATO alliance, but also in allegedly halting communications related to the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between Moscow and Washington.

After former President George W. Bush left the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, which restricted missile defenses, and former President Donald Trump abandoned the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, which banned the same kind of mid-range systems at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Biden rescued the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with a phone call to Putin on the eve of the agreement's expiration shortly after the U.S. leader took office early last year.

Russian officials have sought follow-on talks to further extend the accord beyond its five-year expiration date, however, and Antonov said that the U.S. appeared to have other plans.

"We were looking forward to specific and substantive ideas on arms control from President Biden's team members, many of whom come from the disarmament society," Antonov said. "Instead, they propose to replace the New START Treaty with some kind of an extended and transparent architecture."

Referring again to the National Security Strategy, Antonov noted "the fact that Russia-U.S. strategic stability dialogue is not even mentioned in the document."

"What comes through in the doctrine is the unwillingness to negotiate, to have an equitable dialogue with us," Antonov stated, "to think about the prospects of new legally binding agreement to replace New START that is so eagerly anticipated in the world."

The state of New START was further imperiled in August when the Russian Foreign Ministry announced an indefinite halt to on-site inspections, a core aspect of the treaty ensuring mutual verification. Such measures were already suspended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Moscow has argued that it could not comply with Washington's push to resume them due to Western sanctions restricting air traffic for Russian personnel.

The State Department has disputed this logic, with a spokesperson telling Newsweek back in August that "U.S. sanctions and restrictive measures imposed as a result of Russia's war against Ukraine are consistent with the New START Treaty and do not prevent Russian inspectors from conducting New START Treaty inspections in the United States."

"The United States has and will continue to engage Russia on the resumption of inspections through diplomatic channels," the State Department spokesperson said at the time.

But bellicose rhetoric from both sides has only escalated since then. Antonov pointed to examples of what he called "hawkish statements by current and former U.S. officials," including suggestions for direct conventional strikes on against Russia forces by former U.S. Army Europe commander General Bed Hodges and former CIA director General David Petraeus, who also led oversaw U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and former national security adviser John Bolton's warning that the U.S. could topple Putin if he used nuclear weapons.

"The recent delusional rhetoric about the possibility of a 'decapitation strike' against the Russian political-military leadership defies any sensible explanation," Antonov said. "What is going on inside the heads of U.S. military planners? I would like to ask my American colleagues, 'is Mr. Bolton alright?'"

And as the White House charged the Kremlin with the use of unsavory nuclear language, Antonov argued that it was Washington that needed to change its tune.

"It is time for Washington to abandon the ill-considered irresponsible nuclear rhetoric," Antonov said. "Nuclear saber-rattling must not be admissible. This matter is extremely delicate. Every day we must remember that a nuclear war must never be fought. There will be no winners in a nuclear conflict."

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Russian personnel stand at attention as the armed forces prepare to move nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles to Moscow for a victory parade in this still from a video published February 25, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a "special military operation" in Ukraine. Russian Ministry of Defense

As was the case during the Cold War that dominated nearly half of the 20th century, the dispute between the U.S. and Russia runs far deeper than Ukraine, and involved rival worldviews clashing in the midst of real-world battles.

Though the fall of the Soviet Union three decades ago offered a boost to Washington's global designs, Antonov argued "the world has changed," and that "today, it would be naive to expect that the United States, as in the past century, will remain the 'guiding star' for all humanity, as Henry Kissinger succinctly put it."

"A strategy based on imposing on other states one's views on the ways of development and human rights ideals can hardly be implemented effectively," Antonov said.

Outside of the deadly conflict unfolding in Eastern Europe and the Western states joining in on U.S. support for Ukraine, Antonov argued that "most of the international community, including Russia, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey as well Asian, Latin American and African states, are apparently not satisfied with the selfish American approaches."

"It feels like Washington cannot recover from the tremendous intoxication with omnipotence, which came after its self-proclaimed victory in the Cold War," he asserted.

And though he acknowledged the presence of "some sensible people in the United States who do see the danger of further aggravation of Russian-U.S. relations," he expressed his "wish" that "their calls for peace could be heard louder and more often. "

"In no case must we forget the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis," Antonov said. "I believe that, despite all the difficulties, we have not yet reached the dangerous verge of falling into the abyss of a nuclear conflict."

"I hope that people of goodwill and common sense will agree with me that we must not let the explosive situation of the 1960s repeat," he added.