Last October, in an interview for a Russian state television documentary about the missile crisis of 1962, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out that there were similarities between the October 1962 missile crisis in Cuba and the situation confronted by Russia in 2022. According to Lavrov, Russia was being threatened by the same Western weapons in Ukraine. With these words, Lavrov ignored that his country had denied Ukraine’s right to self-determination as the United States has done to Cuba since 1959.

Yet Lavrov was right about one thing: Cuba 1962 and Ukraine 2022 are indeed similar. Just not for the reasons that the Russian foreign minister has identified.

Comparing the Two Histories

Cuba was a Spanish colony for more than 400 years. But when Cuban independence was officially declared in 1902, it was fatally undermined by the Platt Amendment which gave the United States the right to intervene in the internal affairs of the ill named independent republic. The Platt Amendment was abolished in 1934, a short time after the frustrated revolution of 1933, but was replaced by a de facto neocolonial relationship, which subordinated Cuba to the United States, especially in economic matters.

General Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship was overthrown on January 1, 1959, by an initially liberating and democratic revolution. Motivated on the one hand by the pro-Soviet ideology of several of its principal leaders, especially Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who became a critic of the USSR two years later, and, on the other hand, by the U.S. efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, the Cuban revolutionary leadership abandoned its democratic promises. Taking advantage of its immense popularity in those early years due to its revolutionary measures, such as agrarian and urban reforms, the government proceeded to take clearly repressive and antidemocratic measures. Among the most important was the undemocratic replacement of most of the union leaders democratically elected after the victory of the revolution, the closure of all independent press organs in mid-1960, and the elimination of all independent civil society organizations, including all independent Black organizations and  independent women’s organizations. Meanwhile, the Cuban government created a one-party system based on the Soviet model.

The revolutionary government also counted on considerable popular support, which had not yet diminished significantly. By October 1962, there was absolutely nothing democratic about the ruling regime in Cuba, but that did not mean that it did not share, with the rest of the Cuban people, the right to national self-determination with respect to the U.S. empire that was attempting to restore its control of the island.

Ukraine’s Modern History and Cuba’s

After a brief period of independence in the wake of the Russian revolutions of 1917, Ukraine was forcibly converted into an internal colony of the USSR and subject to unimaginable crimes like the disastrous famine Stalin deliberately provoked in 1932 as part of a brutal campaign to collectivize Soviet agriculture. After the collapse of the USSR, elections were held in 1991 to determine the political future of Ukraine, with a turnout of 84 percent of the eligible voters. Ukrainian independence was supported by 90.32 percent of the voters with only 7.6 percent opposed to independence. The vote in support of Ukrainian independence included more than 80 percent of the voters in the districts in the east later occupied by Russian troops and 54 percent in the Crimean Peninsula, where a large part of the population was Russian by ethnicity. In the Ukrainian context, the use of Russian language does not necessarily indicate an identification with Moscow, just like in Latin America, where the use of Spanish did not imply a national identification with Spain in the nineteenth century.

A 2022 Freedom House report classified Ukraine as being only “partially free” with a grade of 60 points out of a possible maximum of 100 points. Although there have been improvements since the overthrow of Victor Yanukovych as head of state in 2014, the report notes that corruption continues to be endemic and the government initiatives to fight this corruption have experienced setbacks. The report further indicates that attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and minority group members are frequent while the police response to those attacks are mostly inadequate. Ukrainian oligarchs continue to hold much power. Unfortunately, the administration of Volodymyr Zelensky has taken advantage of the critical situation of the country to impose neoliberal economic policies that adversely affect the labor rights of Ukrainian workers.

As in the case of Cuba in 1962, none of the undoubted defects of the Ukrainian political system justified the Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022. Vladimir Putin declared that fascism had to be eliminated in Ukraine. True, a group of right-wing extremists tried to hijack the Maidan democratic movement in 2014, and some Ukrainian soldiers have added Nazi symbols to their uniforms. But that same extreme right has obtained a very small number of votes in the subsequent elections that have taken place in that country. In fact, it is Vladimir Putin who has had a very notable association with right-wing politics in the Russian Federation as well as abroad. With respect to his rule at home, Putin has been influenced by right-wing Russian ideologists such as Lev Gumilev and Alexander Dugin, while he has associated abroad with Marine Le Pen in France and other European right-wing figures. Putin has even recently sent to Cuba organizations like the Stolypin Institute, named in honor of the reactionary interior minister and prime minister of Tsarist Russia from 1906 to 1911. Putin has also been very critical of V. I. Lenin because of the Bolshevik leader’s internationalism, which Putin blames for having legitimated the right of Ukrainians to national self-determination. At the same time, Putin has praised Stalin for his Russian nationalism and patriotism. Most of all, Putin has demonstrated his imperialist predilections by intervening politically and/or militarily in countries such as Belarus, Chechnya, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and the more distant Syria and Libya. Putin even claims that there is no basis whatsoever for Ukraine’s existence as an independent country, arguing shortly before the invasion that Ukraine shared Russia’s “history, culture and cultural space.”

Putin is right that NATO’s provocative expansion isolated Russia, despite the promises that several Western leaders made to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s that those countries would not take advantage of their victory in the Cold War to extend NATO beyond its existing limits. After the end of the Soviet Union, NATO’s explicit purpose disappeared, so the logical thing would have been to dissolve NATO.

Nevertheless, the proposal for Ukraine to join NATO was only a distant possibility in 2022. Even if Ukraine were about to request membership in NATO in 2022, would that have justified a Russian invasion? If Cuba had joined the Warsaw Pact in the 1960s, would that have justified a U.S. invasion of Cuba? From a practical point of view, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had the opposite result of Putin’s goal of weakening NATO when it led countries with a long history of neutrality, like Finland and Sweden, to apply for NATO membership for fear of the damage that Putin might cause them.

Putin’s claims of a supposedly shared identity between Russia and Ukraine—as well as his interventions in Chechnya, Georgia, and other countries—are related to the notion of “spheres of influence.” That is the principal reason that Putin is unhappy with the expansion of NATO. Countries like Finland, with which Russia shares a long border, have fallen even more under the influence of the United States and its allies. The mere notion of “spheres of influence,” also supported by many politicians and academics that are far from being sympathetic to Putin, is a quintessentially imperialist concept, because it establishes geographical proximity as a legitimate source of political expansion and domination.

That is why the principle of national self-determination is indispensable: it is anti-imperialist by nature, and it reaffirms the democratic concept that the inhabitants of a nation should resolve its problems and take control of their destiny. That does not mean that people throughout the world cannot and should not help those who live in other nations, especially those oppressed by dictatorships and oligarchies. But that should be done through the independent organizations of civil society like unions, churches, and independent human rights organizations rather than the governmental organizations of imperialist countries that have interests contrary to the self-determination of those whom they pretend to help.

Similarities and Differences

On April 17, 1961, 1,400 exiled Cubans organized and armed by U.S. agencies such as the CIA, disembarked at the Bay of Pigs on the south-central coast of Cuba.

The invaders were defeated in a few days, and hundreds of them were imprisoned by the Cuban government and eventually exchanged for agricultural equipment and other goods provided by Washington. Anticipating the invasion, Fidel Castro proclaimed the socialist character of the Cuban revolution on April 16. After the Bay of Pigs disaster, the U.S. government doubled down at the end of November 1961 by inaugurating a program of terrorist attacks and clandestine operations against Cuba named Mongoose.

At the beginning of 1962 , Fidel Castro had a secret interview with Nikita Khrushchev in which he agreed to secretly install missiles with nuclear warheads with the capacity to reach the United States. According to Lieutenant Coronel Rubén G. Jiménez Gómez, who was the founder and chief of the Cuban troops involved in missile management, Moscow sent the so-called Grouping of Soviet Troops to Cuba from mid-July to the beginning of November 1962 to implement the decision to transport nuclear and other types of arms to Cuba. This Soviet initiative involved 53,000 troops including various sectors of the Soviet armed forces that were transported to Cuba in 85 boats of the Ministry of the Soviet Merchant Marine in 185 trips. As Jiménez Gómez explains, the Soviet shipment of middle and intermediate missiles was intended to deter a U.S. invasion of Cuba, while the tactical nuclear weapons would be used in the event of a U.S. invasion. In other words, tactical nuclear weapons were not designed for deterrence but for combat. In fact, Jiménez Gómez points out that if the Soviet troops had to defend the strategic missiles and themselves against an invasion, they would not likely have abstained from using any of their weapons.

Although this massive Soviet intervention would not have happened without the consent of Fidel Castro and the Cuban government, the Soviet government was not sure that the Cubans would give permission for the Soviets to proceed. Fidel Castro would later insist that he accepted the Soviet proposals much further beyond what was in Cuba’s interest in order to strengthen the “socialist camp.” In fact, according to Marshall Biriuzov, one of the members of the Soviet commission that arrived in Cuba on May 29, 1962, to obtain Cuba’s authorization for the weapons shipments, Cuban leaders considered themselves more like benefactors of the Soviet Union than enjoying its protection.

Nevertheless, although the Cuban government obviously cooperated with the implementation of the Soviet agreement in everything that was within its military and logistical power, it did not participate whatsoever in the military and political decisions of the operation. For example, the extremely important decision to shoot down one of the many U.S. U2 planes flying over Cuba to photograph Soviet installations, which resulted in the death of American pilot Rudolf Anderson on October 27, was taken by the Soviet authorities without even consulting the Cuban military chiefs before adopting a course of action with possibly very serious consequences.

In contrast to Cuba in October 1962, the Ukrainian government is not hosting any foreign troops except for some individuals and small groups supporting the Ukrainians as volunteers, many of them right-wingers, and the mercenary pro-Russian forces of the “Wagner Group” which have many former Russian common prisoners in their ranks. Until this moment, there does not seem to be nuclear arms on either side of the conflict. At the same time, Ukraine depends to a very high degree on the military and economic help that NATO countries have supplied, especially the United States during the Biden administration. Although the military direction and tactical decisions at the front are in the hands of Ukrainian officers, this outside provision of weapons, munitions, training, intelligence, military strategy, and general economic assistance has been indispensable. According to The New York Times, for instance, 36,000 Ukrainian troops have been trained abroad. Even so, the United States and its allies have delayed as much as possible the sending of airplanes and state-of-the-art tanks. At least for the moment, Ukraine’s supporters in the West want to avoid a much wider military conflict with Russia.

The underestimation of Ukrainian political and military control in the present conflict, which is often presented as a conflict between Russia and the West with the Ukrainians playing the role of cannon fodder, would be much more applicable to Cuba in 1962 than to Ukraine today. There is also a potentially big difference in strategy between Ukraine and its NATO supporters, at least in terms of resolving the conflict. Ukraine fights for the reestablishment of its territorial integrity, which includes the territories occupied by Russia in the eastern and southern parts of the country and especially in Crimea, possibly to be voted on in plebiscites conducted in those recovered areas. Although the United States and its NATO European allies want to defeat Putin, they would probably be satisfied if Putin accepted the status quo prior to the 2022 invasion, which it is certainly not the goal of the Ukrainian government. In fact, various important U.S. publications such as Foreign Affairs have argued that after the conclusion of the much-expected summer offensive, Ukraine must start negotiating with Russia to reach an agreement that almost certainly would not include the satisfaction of all Ukrainian claims. By contrast, in October 1962, the power rivalry with Washington was far more important to Soviet leaders than the preservation of Cuba’s sovereignty and national integrity, as demonstrated by the Kremlin ignoring the Cuban demand that the United States withdraw from the Guantanamo Naval Base.

Even more serious was what happened with the negotiations between Washington and Moscow to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, which endangered not only world peace but even the survival of much of the planet in 1962. Moscow agreed to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in exchange for Washington’s promises that it would not invade Cuba along with the secret pledge that Washington would retire the middle-range Jupiter missiles installed in Turkey. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy ignored Castro’s insistence on closing Guantanamo and ending the economic blockade of Cuba. A furious Castro denounced the accord between the two superpowers and refused to allow any kind of foreign inspections of the withdrawal of the missiles in Cuban territory. For that reason, the U.S. air force carried out the inspections in the high seas with the cooperation of Soviet naval vessels.

A wide sector of the international left echoed Fidel Castro’s strong criticism of Soviet leaders while also ignoring that Castro consented to the total Soviet control over its military operations on the island. Even more serious is that most of this left, as well as the Cuban government, adopted a version of what the radical American sociologist C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism” when they approved of the Soviet Union sending nuclear arms to Cuba. These medium- and long-range strategic nukes, as well as tactical weapons for use on the battlefield, significantly increased the possibility of nuclear clashes with the United States, the destructive consequences felt disproportionately by the Cuban people. Only a leftist minority—the British anti-nuclear group “Committee of 100” as well as radical and socialist groups opposed to both Washington and Moscow—condemned the nuclear character of this superpower encounter.

Castro also accompanied his “crackpot realism” with what could be called a “death cult.” In a letter on October 26, 1962, Castro exhorts Khrushchev to go to extremes in retaliation against a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba:

…because I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba—a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law—then that would the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.   

Here, in response to a future invasion, Castro was proposing a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States, which would have eliminated not only the rulers, capitalists, and imperialists, but also workers, children, and many innocent people. Such an attack on the United States would have also had a very negative impact on the health and welfare of the Cuban people themselves. In a conference that took place in Havana on the anniversary of the crisis in October 2002, Fidel Castro declared that he would have preferred a U.S. invasion to the humiliation of the sudden withdrawal of the missiles, adding that “Cuba could be eliminated but never defeated—if all of us had died, there would have been no defeat.”  

In their attitudes towards death, Castro and his associates certainly drew from the history of the mambises who fought Spanish colonialism for 30 years in the second half of the nineteenth century and were willing and ready to sacrifice their lives for the cause. But when the mambises fought with their machetes against the Spanish soldiers armed with their Mausers—and later when Castro and others fought against Batista and other dictators—they were risking their lives and that of their comrades in struggle, not the lives of millions of people far from the conflict.

Castro’s opponents have long criticized this aspect of the government’s ruling ideology, as in the well-known video “Fatherland and Life” with its explicit opposition to the Cuban government slogan of “Fatherland or Death.”

None of these considerations should lead to the conclusion that it is necessary or desirable to widen the conflict beyond the Ukrainian borders, which would involve the very grave possibility of transforming a struggle primarily for national self-determination into a largely inter-imperialist conflict. Such a type of conflict would convert Ukraine into a mere imperial war excuse. Ukraine has every right to fight for its national self-determination, including the defense of its territorial integrity, and to obtain the necessary help wherever it can procure it. It is our duty to support her unconditionally in those efforts, but without closing our eyes to reality or abandoning our critical faculties, for the exercise of which there should be no exception.

Samuel Farber was born and grew up in Marianao, Cuba, and has written numerous books and articles about Cuba, the Russian Revolution, and U.S. politics. He is a retired professor of CUNY (City University of New York) and resides in that city. This is a slightly abridged version of the Spanish language original article that recently appeared in CubaXCuba, the new critical journal published on the island. This is the seventh essay in a new series Ukraine and the World, a joint project of FPIF, European Alternatives, and Another Europe Is Possible. The first essay on Ukraine and energy can be found here, the second one on Ukraine and the world order here, the third on Ukraine and non-alignment is here, the fourth is on Russia’s agricultural warfare, the fifth is on the anti-American left and the war in Ukraine, and the sixth on peace proposals.