US Air Force

Why technology that worked for Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis failed Obama in Ukraine

  • Satellite imagery released by NATO on Aug. 28, 2014.

    Satellite imagery released by NATO on Aug. 28, 2014.  (DigitalGlobe)

  • One of the first U2 spy plane images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on Oct. 16, 1962.

    One of the first U2 spy plane images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on Oct. 16, 1962.  (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

When NATO and Washington accused Russia of sending troops to fight within Ukrainian borders in support of Ukrainian rebels during the recent crisis, there were fears that the situation would escalate into a “new Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Unlike the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis however, U.S. military and CIA Imagery intelligence (IMINT) did not prove as useful to President Obama in dealing with President Putin during the “Ukrainian Crisis.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis IMINT served President Kennedy well, as the then highly secret U2 program produced overflight photographs of Cuba identifying the construction sites of Soviet missile sites, and allowing the Pentagon to estimate the level of preparedness of the Russian-supplied missile systems. Some of the detailed photographs, but not the U2 source that produced them, were revealed to the media. At the time the Soviet leadership never seriously relied on publicly disputing the authenticity of the U2 IMINT to manage the crisis.

In a somewhat similar fashion, satellite images of columns of Russian military vehicles crossing the border into the Ukraine in August 2014 were made available to the public through media outlets, although in this case the images were captured by ostensibly commercial DigitalGlobe satellites, rather than secret military hardware.

Release of the satellite images was used to support claims by NATO and Washington of the direct involvement of Russian troops in the Ukrainian conflict. President Putin denied the truth of these claims.

Putin's grip on Russian media has virtually removed any meaningful Russian media coverage of views opposed to the Kremlin, leaving the vast majority of Russian citizens effectively as poorly informed about world events as they were at the height of the Cold War. Putin’s flat denials of Russian troops being “on the ground” in the Ukraine, broadcast widely in Russian media, are likely believed by the majority of Russians.

President Obama’s use of the DigitalGlobe satellite imagery as evidence of Russians fighting alongside Ukrainian rebels was widely portrayed in Russia as part of a U.S.-led “western” anti-Russian conspiracy, exploiting the weakness of the administration in Kiev.

Perhaps surprisingly, despite President Putin and his mainly former Russian intelligence inner-circle being adept at manipulating mainstream and other media in Russia to promote their worldview, Putin himself reportedly shuns the Internet. Perhaps fearing rival intelligence agencies are manipulating Internet technology as proficiently as his intelligence services, Putin insists that all his briefing materials are delivered in hard copy, typed on no more than three pages using Point 18 type, and presented in red folders, potentially harking back to his Soviet era service as a Major in the KGB in East Germany.

Even with the technically far superior satellite and other IMINT now available compared to 1962 President Obama appeared to be less well informed of relevant threats inherent in the Ukraine Crisis than President Kennedy was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Much of this information failure may be due to the shift in US intelligence gathering focus to the asymmetric Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist threats following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks. During Kennedy’s Presidency, at the height of the Cold War, intelligence collection against the perceived Soviet menace was the number one priority by a distance.

That said, the CIA never successfully ran any significant human intelligence sources with access to Kremlin secrets and thinking at the height of the Cold War. It has since been shown that this absence of reliable human intelligence sources led to a complete lack of understanding regarding the strategic views of the Soviet leadership and its motives. As it turned out, the Soviets were genuinely fearful throughout the Cold War of a knock-out U.S. nuclear first strike. U.S. military and intelligence perceptions during the Cold War of the “bomber gap,” and later the “missile gap,” also proved to be misapprehensions. 

Today President Obama remains likely largely ignorant of President Putin’s intentions and endgame with respect to his Ukrainian incursion due to a similar lack of human intelligence sources with access to Putin’s apparently narrowing inner circle. Reportedly no-one outside of Putin’s inner circle of mainly former Russian intelligence officers knew of his plans to annex Crimea until only two days before he did so.  

Kremlin watchers may be back in vogue, but Kremlin watchers rather than “Kremlin understanders" remains the more apt description. They can but wait and watch given their lack of access to significant human intelligence regarding the workings of Putin’s inner circle. This lack of access to significant human intelligence sources inhibits meaningful assessment of the hopes, fears, and motivations of senior Russian leadership figures and impedes the calibration of the IMINT and other intelligence on the basis of any such assessment.

President Obama was in a worse position to manage the Ukrainian Crisis than President Kennedy was throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962 when Kennedy presented the IMINT evidence obtained by U2 spy-planes to the world’s media it began a process leading to the back channel diplomacy that deescalated the crisis and brought the world back from the brink of nuclear confrontation.

The game has changed. Putin’s denials that Russian military vehicles crossed the border into Ukraine were ineffectively challenged by world leaders despite the proof of DigitalGlobe satellite IMINT being made available to the world’s media. Simply put, Putin won the Ukrainian Crisis media war, his main priority, both in Russia and more widely, with the international diplomatic, economic and military situation apparently of secondary importance to the Russian leadership.