File picture of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar during interview with the press in Havana.
Alarmingly, the Russians in recent months have been using Cuba to build up a menacing Cold War-era presence at America’s doorstep.
Some Republican and Democratic leaders, along with many of my colleagues in conservative talk radio were quick to criticize President Obama’s move on Wednesday to restore diplomatic ties with Havana; they claimed it rewarded dictatorship and damaged America’s global posture and bargaining position.
Missing in much of the national conversation is how this White House maneuver checks Russia’s growing influence in Cuba, where Moscow, in Cold War fashion, has been flexing its military and economic muscles just 90 miles from the US coast in an overt challenge to our national security. A clear-minded analysis of Obama’s move may impart future implications for Israel, as well.
Obama’s announcement on Wednesday detailed the renewal of relations with Cuba, including the goal of reopening a US embassy in Havana that has been closed for 50 years. The US will also ease travel restrictions while making it easier for Americans to do business in the country by, among other things, permitting the use of US credit and debit cards in Cuba. Secretary of State John Kerry has been ordered to conduct a review Cuba’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
This dramatic shift in US policy was cemented with a prisoner exchange in which Cuba had already freed the contractor Alan Gross, imprisoned for the past five years on controversial charges of trying to undermine the Cuban government. Havana is expected to release 53 other political prisoners from its jails, as dictated by a list provided by the US. The Obama administration will in turn release three Cubans who were convicted of espionage.
Leading the chorus of GOP criticism was the Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, who slammed the president’s “decision to reward the Fidel Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba” as “inexplicable.” Rubio further vowed to use his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee to “make every effort” to counter Obama’s attempts at normalizing US-Cuban relations.
Obama took heat from his own party, as well, with Sen Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rightly taking issue with the prisoner exchange aspect of the larger Cuban-American rapprochement. Menendez, a staunch critic of Cuba, charged that Obama’s “actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.” He added, “There is no equivalence between an international aid worker [Alan Gross] and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation.”
While these critiques are more than legitimate, Menendez, Rubio, and a panoply of cable news pundits and right-leaning talk radio hosts fail to see that in this particular case Obama may be severing a political limb to bolster the patient’s national security.
Alarmingly, the Russians in recent months have been using Cuba to build up a menacing Cold War-era presence at America’s doorstep. Cost-benefit calculations here might find rapprochement with Cuba outweighs the risks of a Soviet reemergence a short boat ride away from the Florida Keys.
In a troubling development, to say the least, The Guardian reported in July that Russia had quietly struck a deal with Cuba to reopen the Lourdes military base, a 28-square-mile, Soviet-era signals intelligence spy base and military facility that was the USSR’s largest foreign base during the Cold War. The Soviets reportedly used the base for 40 years to intercept American radio and telephone communications.
It’s true that some have seen the base’s reopening as largely symbolic, since spy methods have dramatically evolved in the past half-century, with reliance now not on listening posts but on satellites and technology that can be deployed from almost anywhere.
The Guardian quoted the Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer as downplaying the reopening of the base as a “PR move” simply aimed at showing Washington the “middle finger.” Still, he allowed the base to be utilized for corporate espionage “because when individuals chatter they’re not always so attentive to secure lines.” Robert Jervis, professor of international politics at Columbia University, warned that Russia could use the base to provide information to anti-US allies like Venezuela and Bolivia.
The reopening of the Lourdes base is just the tip of the Cuban-Russian alignment iceberg. This past August, Putin paid a visit to Cuba, where the Russian strongman forgave 90% of Cuba’s unpaid Soviet-era debts, a total of $32 billion. He also reportedly signed industrial, energy and trade deals with Cuba that included a search for oil in Cuban waters. According to media reports, Putin utilized his recent Latin American tour to sign numerous military agreements to place Russian global positioning stations not only in Cuba but also in Argentina and Brazil.
Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University, saw Putin’s trip to Cuba as “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 business here.’”
Things get worse. In a move undoubtedly watched closely by the Pentagon, in April 2013 Russian Military Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov reportedly toured key Cuban military and intelligence sites. Four months later, a spokesman for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet told reporters that the fleet’s flagship, the Russian guided-missile warship Moskva, would tour the coast of Cuba and Central and South American ports.
In February 2014, it was reported that another Russian warship, the Viktor Leonov CCB-175, had docked in Cuba.
These moves, which could potentially bring thousands of Russian soldiers to Cuba in the future, may in part help to explain why, as part of Obama’s rapprochement, the White House is so eager to reopen a US embassy on Cuban soil. The facility will clearly help establish a US presence to countervail Russia’s.
Obama’s announcement comes at a less than fortuitous time for Russia. One day earlier, Obama had said he planned to sign a new sanctions bill targeting the Russian economy. That same day, the Russian ruble hit a new low, although it bounced back slightly after Moscow unveiled a package of measures meant to stem the losses.
The dual Cold War posturing could further be seen in a bill that passed the House earlier this month but received little news media attention even though the legislation importantly urges Obama and allied nations to take military measures against Russia.
House Resolution 758 carries the lengthy, benign title, “Strongly condemning the actions of the Russian Federation, under President Vladimir Putin, which has carried out a policy of aggression against neighboring countries aimed at political and economic domination.” The bill, which I reviewed in full, does more than condemn Putin. It resolves that the US should take actions against Russia with military implications.
Ominously, the legislation reaffirms the obligations of signatories to the North Atlantic Treaty, the NATO alliance, to “provide their full share of the resources needed to ensure their collective defense.” The legislation further calls for the US to provide Ukraine with “lethal and non-lethal” defense resources. It calls for NATO allies and US partners in Europe and other nations around the world to suspend all military cooperation with Russia, including halting the sale of military supplies to Putin’s government.
While Obama’s track record on defending American sovereignty and national security has been wanting, it looks as though his current détente with Cuba may materially have US interests at heart. At the same time, Obama has proven himself such a weak negotiator there is no guarantee that, like Russia and Iran, Cuba will simply pocket the latest concessions and continue to work against the US anyway.
Meanwhile, Obama’s Cuba move may spell future shifts in alliances around the world, including American moves on the strategic Mideast chessboard right in Israel’s backyard. It suggests that Obama may be willing to review the US attitude toward the al-Sisi regime in Egypt, where Russia has been quickly filling the power vacuum left when the White House inexplicably oriented itself away from Cairo after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the takeover by a pro-Western military regime. While it is still too early to tell, Obama’s move against Russia and Cuba may also hint at a change in future policy of his becoming more activist in working to unseat another Russian ally, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.