Will the Ukraine confrontation become the cyber “missile crisis?”

In 1962 the Soviet Union responded to US intervention in Cuba (cf. the Bay of Pigs) by installing nuclear missiles on that island capable of reaching Washington DC in a matter of minutes. The ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Unknown to the US at the time was that the Soviet missiles were operational and could have been launched with little or no warning. The main reason that did not happen is that the US had overwhelming superiority in intercontinental nuclear missiles as well as nuclear missiles on bases surrounding the USSR, specifically in Germany, Turkey, and probably Japan. Premier Khrushchev had no real option but to fold his hand and admit defeat.

Fast forward to 2014. A western-backed revolt has overthrown the elected government of Ukraine, threatening Russian access to naval bases in Crimea that Moscow sees as essential to defending their oil export routes. The response of the US has been to impose economic sanctions on Russia—basically economic warfare. So how might Russia react? A cyber-attack on the US economy is certainly a possibility. According to former Richard A. Clarke, former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism, Russia probably has the means to shut down the US banking system and the US has no real defense against such an attack. Faced with even a limited cyber-attack President Obama would have basically three choices: retaliate in kind, launch a “kinetic,” i.e. non-cyber-attack on Russia, or back down. Given that the US is far more vulnerable to cyber-attack than is Russia while that country is at least as capable of offensive cyber warfare, the US would almost certainly lose if the President chose the first option. Any military intervention by the US in the region would be a disaster and could rapidly escalate into a nuclear confrontation. Only this time the US and Russia have parity in nuclear arms. So the most likely outcome, if the US overplays its hand in Ukraine is an embarrassing capitulation that would not only probably end the position of the US as the only super power but which could very well have serious political consequences in the US, conceivably spelling the end of our democracy. Mr. Obama would be prudent to let Russia deal with its restive neighbors on its own.

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