Why Russia and Cuba Are Partying Like It’s 1962
Why Russia and Cuba Are Partying Like It’s 1962
By Lucy Westcott and Bill Powell / August 12, 2014 5:21 AM EDT
It seemed like old times: In Havana in early July, Castro, the
revolutionary leader of Cuba, embraced the current occupant of the
Kremlin—once upon a time the isolated Communist island’s sugar
daddy—together gleefully sticking a finger in the eye of their Cold War
rival in Washington.
In this case, the Castro was Raúl—the younger brother of the ailing (or
still alive?) Fidel—who now runs Cuba, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian
president, who seems driven to not only reconstitute (to the extent he
can) the Soviet Union but also to put the old band of anti-American
developing-world countries back together again. This was the second
visit from Russia’s leader since the Soviet Union fell apart and—much to
Havana’s fury—Moscow effectively dumped it as an unaffordable client state.
But as Putin, since his annexation of Crimea in March and his backing of
Ukrainian separatists, has become increasingly hostile toward the West,
his Cuba visit raised an important question: In 2014, is a Moscow-Havana
alliance as potentially consequential for the United States and its
allies in the region as it once was? These, after all, were the players
that in 1962 brought the world to as close to nuclear Armageddon as it
has ever been.
Putin’s motives for establishing closer ties with not only Havana but
other like-minded countries in Latin America—Venezuela and Nicaragua
specifically—seem straightforward. In the wake of his push into Ukraine,
Russia’s relations with the West are deteriorating rapidly. So in the
East he signed a massive gas deal with China (the two powers have long
viewed each other warily at best), then looked south for a
back-to-the-future moment with Cuba.
During the visit, Putin agreed to write off $32 billion in Russian debt
to Cuba, leaving just over $3 billion left to pay over the next 10
years. This was a significant economic weight lifted from Havana, whose
gross domestic product shrank by up to a third with the loss of direct
aid and subsidies from Moscow after the Soviet Union fell. Putin and
Raúl Castro also agreed to new deals in energy, health and disaster
prevention and help with building a vast new seaport. Moscow is also now
exploring for oil and gas in Cuban waters, right in the U.S.’s backyard.
The deals were the most pronounced sign yet that the formerly estranged
couple were reconciling—a process that has been under way for more than
a year. Early in 2013, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited
and agreed to lease eight jets to Cuba. In June, as part of a “space
cooperation” agreement, Cuba said it will allow Moscow to base
navigation stations for its own global positioning system, called
Glonass, on the island.
“What Putin is doing is reestablishing the relationships that, when
Russia was turning west, planning to become part of wider Europe, and
giving up the legacy of the Soviet Union, were actually neglected,” says
Nina Khrushcheva, an associate professor of international affairs at the
New School and granddaughter of former Russian premier Nikita
Khrushchev. “I think that stands at the core of his reengagement.”
But Putin didn’t show up in Havana simply to sign trade deals. The
former KGB man had more on his mind than a photo op before flying back
to Moscow. Important strategic moves were made. In exchange for
canceling the Cuban debt, Russian news outlet Kommersant reported,
Russia plans to reopen the so-called Lourdes spying post. Opened south
of Havana in 1967, Lourdes was the largest and most extensive Soviet
signals intelligence facility outside of the Soviet Union for much of
the Cold War, says Austin Long, an assistant professor of international
and public affairs at Columbia University.
Moscow closed Lourdes, which operated only 150 miles from the Florida
coast, in 2001. At its operating peak, more than 75 percent of Russia’s
strategic intelligence on the U.S. came through Lourdes, including
monitoring NASA’s space program at Cape Canaveral.
While there are doubts over just how quickly Russia can reopen the
28-square-mile compound—and, considering Putin has actually denied the
reports, whether it will even open—the news is still significant. “It
indicates a real effort by Putin to revitalize the worldwide rather than
just regional capabilities of Russia for intelligence collection, and
maybe eventually for the protection of military power,” says Long.
Deeper than that is Russia’s realization that it may be lagging far
behind in the murky realm of cybersecurity, particularly after Edward
Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks, Long said. But there is
another way of looking at Russia’s spying ambitions in the wake of the
Cold War. If, as has been widely speculated, Snowden, whom Putin has
just awarded a three-year visa to remain in Russia, was a Moscow spy
from the start, far from lagging in the cyber-spying race, Moscow may be
a nose ahead of the U.S.
“I think this is partly an attempt by them to reopen a facility that
gives them some access, at least in theory, into the West,” Long said.
“The Russians are okay on low-level cyber stuff, but I don’t think
they’ve kept up overall in terms of signals intelligence, certainly not
over what the U.S. and the U.K. have done over the past decade.”
And while information-gathering technology may have changed beyond all
recognition since the late 1960s—with satellite technology rendering
ground-based operations largely useless—if Lourdes does reopen, Russia
can provide information to allies like Venezuela and Bolivia, says
Robert Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University.
“I think there’s real benefit [to reopening Lourdes]. After all, the
U.S. tries to vacuum up everything imaginable, so we shouldn’t be
surprised that Russia would want to do likewise,” he said.
Moscow’s moves puts Cuba in play as an asset to annoy the U.S. at a time
when relations are worse with Washington than at any time since the end
of the Cold War. And they come amid evidence that Washington under the
Obama administration hasn’t exactly been ignoring Cuba from an
intelligence standpoint either. The Associated Press recently revealed
that in 2009 the U.S. ran an operation, under the guise of the U.S.
Agency for International Development, sending young Latin Americans into
Cuba in “hopes of ginning up rebellion.”
The Russian rapprochement goes way beyond the potential reopening of
Lourdes. Last year, Russian Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov
visited key intelligence sites in Cuba. One year after Medvedev’s visit
to Cuba in 2008, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that
Russia had engaged in talks to establish military bases in Cuba as well
as Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“Anything that annoys the U.S. probably makes Putin feel better,” Jervis
said. “It’s symbolic muscle-flexing.”
How seriously should Washington take Russia’s reengagement with Cuba?
Regional experts both in and out of government say, for the moment
anyway, not very. The reopening of Lourdes isn’t going to threaten U.S.
national security when organized crime, drug trafficking and
uncontrolled migration are top priorities for the U.S. in Latin America,
says Joaquín Roy, a professor of European integration at the University
“Russia doesn’t have the military or naval capability of converting this
into a beachhead of operations in Latin America,” Roy said. “If someone
believes that, this is totally silly.”
Still, Putin is a shrewd image-builder and will seek out and exploit
those countries disappointed in the United States, Khrushcheva says.
“It’s the image-building for those who have been incredibly disappointed
by 20-plus years of U.S. lone leadership of the world,” she said.
And in the spying game—as in real estate—location counts is paramount.
Ultimately, Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. gives it value to a Russian
president who has decided he wants to make life as difficult for the
United States as he is able. And Obama’s comments in March this year,
after Putin’s Crimea invasion, that the U.S. is working to “isolate”
Russia from the international community, only gives Moscow more
incentive to re-engage Havana.
Putin’s Cuba trip, says Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian
studies at Princeton University, “was a reply to Obama’s notion that
Russia could be isolated, by saying, ‘Hey, here we are back 90 miles off
your shore with a big greeting, and we’re going back into economic
While the revival of the lapsed Russia-Cuba love affair might be an
irritant to a United States that has long hoped the demise of Fidel
Castro would finally bring an end of Cuba’s isolation—and possibly a
reorientation toward Washington— the U.S. has much bigger problems with
Moscow these days. And Russia simply doesn’t have the
wherewithal—despite its oil and gas wealth—to refight a cold war in all
the old venues.
“If you compare [the Russian threat today] to the Soviet Union 30 years
ago, that was a large scale, global challenge,” says Columbia’s Austin
Long. “I think Putin certainly has ambitions to restore global stature
to Russian power, but we’re just not there, and I don’t see any prospect
that we will be.”
Putin may punch above his weight, but at some point, reality sets in.
“The gap in capabilities between the U.S. and Russia now,” says Long,
“and the Soviet Union and the United States 30 or 40 years ago is just
much, much greater.”
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