Home The Washington Diplomat April 2009

Using Old Friend Cuba as Its Base,Russia Reasserts Its Latin Influence

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In 1967, while posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Wayne Smith attended a rally protesting the murder of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. A student handed him an anti-American placard that, translated from Russian, read “Hands Off Cuba!”

For years, that sign has occupied a prominent place on the wall of Smith’s office at the Center for International Policy. Now 77, the retired diplomat says it pretty much sums up his attitude toward Washington’s anti-Cuba policy during the last 50 years.

“U.S. policy is dictated by the hard-line exiles in Florida. It has almost nothing to do with what happens in Cuba,” said Smith, who from 1977 to 1981 served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, a sort of quasi-ambassadorial position in the absence of real diplomatic relations.

“We used to tell Fidel Castro during the 1980s that if he would get his troops out of Africa, stop giving arms to guerrillas in Central America, and reduce his military relationship with the Soviets, then we could move ahead and improve relations in a significant way.”

Over time, the Castro regime met all those conditions yet U.S.-Cuba relations only got worse — even after the Soviet Union imploded and Russia’s new democratic leaders left Castro out to dry, leading to Cuba’s worst economic disaster in living memory.

But lately, the Kremlin is reaching out to its old friend — and making its presence felt close to American shores.

In fact, while international attention remains riveted on Moscow’s growing influence in its backyard, namely in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine, the former “Soviet sphere” isn’t the only place where Russia is trying to reassert its authority. Just as Russia announced plans to modernize its armed forces, boost its nuclear weapons, and build military bases in the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, halfway across the world, it’s also been staging a resurgence of sorts in Latin America — using Cuba as its base of operations.

Last October, top-ranked Russian Lt. Gen. Alexander Maslov visited Cuba and signed key treaties in information technology and communications with his Cuban counterpart. Later that month, a massive Russian Orthodox cathedral was inaugurated in Old Havana — even though virtually no Cubans belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Then in November, President Dmitry Medvedev visited Havana, marking the first such visit of a Russian leader to the Cuban capital since 2000. On Dec. 19, a Russian anti-submarine destroyer and two logistical warships docked in Havana Bay — in what AP correspondent Will Weissert called a “thumb-your-nose port call” aimed at Washington in waters just 90 miles from Florida. Russian sailors in white-and-tan dress uniforms stood at attention on the deck of the Admiral Chabanenko destroyer, which chugged into Havana Bay amid a cloud of gray smoke.

Russian officials said the visit was non-military, an extension of a tour that included a stopover in Venezuela, where Russia staged a series of joint war games that included a large flotilla of Russian warships. But outsiders say the idea was to flex some muscle in America’s backyard after the Bush administration supported the former Soviet republic of Georgia in its brief war with Russia.

More recently in mid-March, a top Russian military official confirmed that the Kremlin was considering using bases in Cuba or Venezuela as logistics stops for its long-distance bomber patrols. “If the two chiefs of state display such a political will, we are ready to fly there,” said Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev, head of Russia’s strategic aviation forces, also noting that “there are four or five airfields in Cuba with 4,000-meter-long runways, which absolutely suit us.”

The Pentagon though quickly mocked the announcement. “That would be quite a long way for those old planes to fly,” Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, told the Associated Foreign Press.

No decision has been made on the Cuban or Venezuelan stopovers, but outsiders predict the move is as much about giving Moscow added leverage in talks with Washington as it is about building up a military presence within range of the United States.

It could also be good old-fashioned payback. After all, it’s no secret that the Kremlin is still annoyed by what it sees as U.S. encroachment on its neighborhood, including Washington’s efforts to build a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic as well as American support for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.

“Part of what motivated them was irritation at what they perceived as the Bush administration’s interference on their periphery,” said noted Cuba-watcher Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. “The missile defense system and the U.S. relationship with Georgia clearly irritated them, and I think their building up a relationship with Cuba and Venezuela is their way of responding.”

But Peters doesn’t think Russia’s increased presence in Cuba is cause for concern. “I don’t think the Cubans would put their own security at risk,” he said, alluding to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. “The Cubans are more cautious than anyone in that regard.”

Smith agrees.

“A few months ago, the Russians were really pissed off at us because of the missile shield program in Europe; they indicated that their strategic bombers could fly out of Cuban airfields. But this was not an official statement. Then they sent a military mission to Cuba, and it was expected that they’d sign some sort of agreement,” Smith explained. “But the mission came back with nothing. A Cuban military spokesman said his country had no interest in a closer military relationship with Russia, because they’d been down that road before.”

To that end, Cuba seems to be pursuing a policy of practical engagement with its old benefactor. “What Cuba and Russia are doing today is using each other for mutual convenience,” says Daniel Erikson, director of Cuba programs at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

“For Cuba, this is part of a broader strategy of diversifying foreign relations and trying to secure new sources of credit which Russia has promised,” Erikson told The Washington Diplomat. “In addition to that, there was so much bad blood between Fidel Castro and the Russian leadership following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now that Raúl [Castro] is president of Cuba and Medvedev is president of Russia, that’s enough of a leadership transition for both sides to let bygones be bygones.”

On Jan. 28, Raúl arrived in Moscow for a weeklong state visit — his first since 1984 — that culminated with a “strategic partnership” between the two leaders. A total of 34 agreements were signed covering everything from the creation of joint ventures to cooperation in biotechnology to the establishment of a joint electronic scientific research center.

“Cuba’s objectives in renewing and expanding its relations with Russia are obvious,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “Russia is a major power with a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Cuba desperately needs all the foreign aid and credits it can get. Russia has been a traditional supplier of weapons and spare parts to Cuba, and Castro is interested in modernizing his armed forces.”

There’s also the petroleum issue, Suchlicki added, noting that Venezuela currently provides 92,000 barrels of oil a day on credit that Cuba will never be able to repay. “Russia can be an alternate source for oil if Venezuela were to fall apart or [Hugo] Chávez is kicked out, although I don’t think this is going to happen,” Suchlicki said.

The other side of the coin is Moscow’s motivation. The financially strapped Russians would also like to recover a part of Cuba’s billion debt, most of which dates from the Soviet era.

The economics of necessity is also why Smith doesn’t seem overly concerned with Moscow’s latest overtures to both Cuba and Venezuela, including a recent offer of class="import-text">2009April.Latin America.txt billion in credits to Venezuelan President Chávez to buy weapons and Russian nuclear technology.

“This doesn’t mean that Russia and Cuba are going back to their former relationship, but given the economic distress in Cuba, having more economic ties with Russia just makes sense,” Smith said. “At a time when U.S. standing in Latin America has never been so low — thanks to Bush — Russia is simply taking advantage of that. They’re trying to reach out and strengthen their relations with Latin America.”

However, it’s not only Venezuela that’s benefiting from military ties with Moscow. Although Venezuela is the largest purchaser of armaments, Argentina has bought helicopters, radars and air traffic control systems. Peru has also acquired Russian weaponry, while Brazil, Mexico and Colombia all pursue cordial military relations, according to Odeen Ishmael, Guyana’s former ambassador to the United States and an expert on regional politics.

Russia’s trade with Brazil surpassed billion in 2008, an amount likely to reach billion by 2010, said Ishmael, noting that Medvedev recently spent three days in Brazil, discussing the development of bilateral ties in oil and gas production, nuclear power, agriculture and space exploration.

“Evidently, the expanded military relations between Russia and Venezuela, as well as with other countries in the region, are worrying to the United States, which has traditionally dominated the arms market in Latin America,” said Ishmael. “Thus, Russia’s military investment can easily undermine U.S. influence and some military analysts feel that this may whip up an arms race in the region.”

As such, Suchlicki sees a more sinister side to Russia’s new fascination with Cuba. “The Russians are interested in rebuilding the Lourdes eavesdropping facility [which was dismantled in 2002 at the insistence of the U.S. government]. I think they’re going to do it under the guise of creating a satellite tracking station [in Cuba].”

The objective, he charged, would be to provide the Russians an important nearby listening post to spy on U.S. military, civilian and industrial communications.

Should the Obama administration be worried about this?

“Absolutely,” replied Suchlicki. “The U.S. government is worried about this new presence in Cuba. Compared to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, this is chicken shit. But it’s something people in the Pentagon are following and tracking. I’m not saying it’s a priority, but there’s definitely some element of concern.”

SIDEBAR: Key Events in History Of Cuba-Russia Relations

1960-62: Alliance with the USSR is built following Fidel Castro’s triumphant revolution, though the Escalante affair and Moscow’s unilateral actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis create serious tensions, along with permanent Cuban distrust toward the Soviets.

1964-68: Tensions and conflicts grow between Cuba and the Soviet leadership under Nikita Khrushchev and the early years of Leonid Brezhnev.

1974: Brezhnev visits Cuba.

1978-79: Havana and Moscow clash over strategies in Africa. The Soviets refuse in 1979 to meet Cuban demands to upgrade its military hardware.

1985-89: Fidel becomes an outspoken critic of perestroika and glasnost; warns of its dangers. Tripartite (Angola-Cuba-USSR) cooperation ceases almost completely.

1989: Mikhail Gorbachev visits Cuba. Agreements are signed but not implemented, and Soviet trade and cooperation fall apart. Subsequently, Cuba refuses to meet financial obligations concerning its debts to the collapsing Soviet Union.

2000-01: Vladimir Putin visits Cuba. Moscow unilaterally closes down the Lourdes eavesdropping station, with a subsequent freezing of bilateral relations.

2004: Russia begins new rapprochement with Cuba. Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov makes a very friendly visit, seeking to restore ties and expand cooperation.

2006: Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov visits Cuba and postpones indefinitely the issue of “old debt,” while agreeing to reschedule 6 million in current payments and grant Cuba a new credit line worth 5 million.

2007: Bilateral trade reaches 0 million (compared to billion in the mid-1980s). Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visits Cuba three times in 12 months; an additional million credit is granted. Important agreements in oil, nickel mining and transport are also signed.

July 2008: Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, visits Cuba and meets with Raúl Castro.

October 2008: Alexander Maslov, Russia’s chief of air defense of the ground army, visits Cuba and signs key treaties in IT and communications with Cuban counterpart Ramiro Valdés Menéndez. Metropolitan Kiril Gundjaev inaugurates the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Old Havana. Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque visits Russia and meets with Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but dismisses any possibility of a Russian deployment of weapons in Cuba.

November 2008: Medvedev’s Nov. 27-28 trip to Havana marks the first visit of a Russian leader to Cuba since 2000; Fidel writes a reflexion critical of the Soviet role in Angola in the 1980s.

December 2008: Russian warships dock in Havana — the first time since the Cold War.

January 2009: President Raúl Castro visits Moscow, the first official visit by a Cuban head of state to Russia in 23 years; major economic and political treaties are signed.

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014