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Russia has been threatening to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russian diplomats say they'll take their unfounded claim that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb inside its own borders to the U.N. Security Council today. To discuss, NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what are Ukraine and its allies saying about this Russian allegation about a radioactive bomb?

MYRE: Well, Ukraine, the U.S. and other NATO countries say it's absolutely false that Ukraine is preparing a dirty bomb. Ukraine has invited United Nations inspectors to come see for themselves. They say Ukraine has nothing to hide. Now, we should note we're marking the 60th anniversary of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That was a nuclear showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And we're going to hear now about those events and how quickly they can spiral out of control when nuclear weapons become part of the debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: Missiles in Cuba add to an already clear and present danger.

MYRE: President John F. Kennedy laid out the risk in a televised speech during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the decades since, new details only reinforce how close the U.S. and Soviets came to nuclear war. Consider 1 of the 4 Soviet submarines that was headed toward Cuba and wasn't designed for warm waters.

PETER KORNBLUH: Their air conditioning and electricity was compromised. It got very hot in the sub, over an estimated 120 degrees.

MYRE: Peter Kornbluh is with the National Security Archive, a private research group. Soviet sailors were fainting from the heat and lack of oxygen. A U.S. Navy ship had detected the sub, and the Americans released depth charges. The intended message was that the sub should surface. That's not how it was received by the Soviet commander.

KORNBLUH: The sub was actually disabled from the shock waves of these explosions. Their communications were knocked out. The captain did not want to surface because he thought that, you know, World War III had broken out.

MYRE: Mariana Budjeryn of Harvard's Kennedy School explains what the commander, Captain Valentin Savitsky, did next.

MARIANA BUDJERYN: Being pursued for a day, unable to recharge batteries, unable to communicate with Moscow and under constant barrage of these explosions that sounded like sledgehammers, Captain Savitsky basically lost his cool and said, arm the nuclear torpedo.

MYRE: In a stroke of good fortune, the overall commander for all four Soviet subs happened to be on this particular submarine. His name was Captain Vasily Arkhipov. He saved the day and perhaps the world when he...

BUDJERYN: Went in and dissuaded Captain Valentin Savitsky from arming and using the nuclear torpedo.

MYRE: On the same day, October 27, Soviet forces in Cuba shot down an American U-2 spy plane, killing the pilot. President Kennedy faced tremendous pressure to respond, possibly with U.S. air strikes on Cuba or even a ground invasion. But former diplomat Philip Zelikow says Kennedy kept his composure.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: At no time does President Kennedy jump to the conclusion that, I guess they've decided to go to war. There is a general hesitation to overinterpret the meaning of all that gunfire.

MYRE: Zelikow says Kennedy and others in his inner circle had served in World War II. They were wary of rash actions that could spiral out of control.

ZELIKOW: Because of the combat experience and especially President Kennedy's experience, there was at least some measure of humility about what they didn't know and a reluctance to overreact, which I think was very important.

MYRE: The crisis was resolved when the Soviets publicly agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba, while the U.S. secretly pledged to withdraw its missiles from Turkey. The Kennedy administration's narrative was that the U.S. came out on top because it took a tough stance and forced the Soviets to retreat. Peter Kornbluh says this is misleading.

KORNBLUH: The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved through diplomacy, dialogue, backchannel communications and compromise.

MYRE: And Kornbluh says we should take heed today.

KORNBLUH: The ultimate lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that when there are human beings, particularly authoritarian personalities, controlling nuclear weapons, the world is in a very dangerous situation.

FADEL: So that's reporting from NPR's Greg Myre. And Greg's still with us. So listening to that, Greg, there are, of course, chilling parallels between then and now. But today's also very different, right?

MYRE: Sure, there are some differences. Back in 1962, the U.S. and Soviets - and the Soviets were in direct confrontation, thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at each other. Today, just one country has the nuclear weapons, Russia, and the other doesn't, Ukraine. And yet we see Russia making a claim without evidence that it's Ukraine that's posing the threat here.

FADEL: NPR's Greg Myre, thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.