Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The bear in the palm trees

What is going on in Russia’s relationship with Cuba?

Clearly, NATO expansion, and now U.S. plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Europe, have not made Moscow happy. So we’re seeing a variety of signals that carry the same message: You play on our periphery, we’ll play on yours.

Some of the signals have fizzed out. The talk of Russian long-range bombers in Cuba has been dismissed by the Russian defense ministry, and by the newspaper that published it in the first place. (And what military sense would it make anyway to have long-range bombers sitting on runways so close to the United States?)

But there are other signals, such as these in a Pravda story yesterday, from Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy of Geopolitical Sciences:

“It is an open secret that the West has been establishing a buffer zone around Russia during the recent years, getting European, Baltic states, Ukraine and the Caucasus involved in the process. The expansion of the Russian military presence abroad, particularly in Cuba, could become a response to US-led activities.”

In the same article, Ivashov discussed the visit of Russian security council official Nikolai Patrushev to Cuba (which Ivashov called “the island of freedom”) and got more specific:

“There are convenient bays for reconnaissance and battleships and a network of so-called forward staging posts in Cuba. We can resume the operation of the radar center in Lourdes upon the agreement of the Cuban administration. A shipment of new radar equipment will be necessary for it, though.”

What does Cuba think of all this? According to Russian media, not much. Cuban Colada notes a Russian media report that the Castro brothers are not pleased with talk of Russian military moves in Cuba, without their being consulted. The same report quotes an unnamed Cuban official saying Havana is “unlikely to revive military cooperation.”

The Bush Administration, meanwhile, continues to react coolly. Here’s the State Department spokesman in yesterday’s briefing: “We don’t see dealing with the Cuban Government as particularly productive. However, we understand that other countries will have bilateral relations as they seem fit.”

So what does Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin mean when he says, “We need to rebuild position in Cuba and other countries?” For now, the two sides are talking in public about economic and political relations, as this Granma article outlines. And the Russians even talked about taking into account Cuba’s views on Latin America as it develops its own commercial relations, developing “a sort of tripartite cooperation,” the Russian Vice President said in Havana.

One can’t dismiss the military talk lightly. But my guess is that the Russians’ loud talk is designed to make a political point to Washington – and in a year’s time, we will see Russia more involved in Cuba’s economy, based on commercial interests and not a new aid/subsidy relationship.

And my guess is that the military talk will remain just talk.

For Cuba to admit a new Russian military presence would be to change radically the strategy behind its step-by-step renovation of its diplomatic relationships, from Europe to the Vatican to Brazil and China. That strategy has brought political and economic benefits, it promises reduced dependence on Venezuela, and it conveniently spotlights the marginal position the United States holds in the Cuba equation today.

It’s hard to imagine a cost-benefit equation that would cause Havana to abandon that strategy. Russia is not offering handouts, certainly nothing approaching the Soviet subsidy that amounted to about a fourth of Cuba’s national income. Many Cubans, in any event, look on the Soviet period as one of dependence, something they would like to leave behind.

The United States is far from the determining factor in any of this, except for the fact that our diplomatic absence in a country so close creates a space that others – white hats, black hats, everyone in between – then occupy. But it’s interesting to ask whether, if the United States were engaged in even modest diplomacy with Cuba, this Russian gambit would be occurring at all.

Some good reading on this topic from The National Interest and Financial Times.

1 comment:

leftside said...

Cuba is not going to go out of its way to piss off the US and probably has little interest in becoming a target again. But it seems to me the direction this is heading is to re-open the Lourdes listening station. Cuba gets $200 million in rent, Russia can say it is just re-opening something closed a few years ago and the US gets reminded what it is like to have their security interetsts ignored in its "sphere of influence."