Russia has decided to reopen an electronic eavesdropping post in Cuba that it closed more than a decade ago, reaching out for a one-time symbol of its global superpower status, Russian officials and newspaper reports said on Wednesday.
President Vladimir Putin agreed with Cuba’s leader, Raul Castro, during a visit to Cuba last week to reopen the post. In exchange, Mr. Putin agreed to forgive about 90 per cent of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt to Russia, or about $32-billion (U.S.). News of the debt relief emerged last week, but the agreement to reopen the listening post was first reported Wednesday by the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Members of the Russian Parliament appeared to confirm the report in public statements praising what seemed to be a step by Russia toward re-establishing a military presence in Cuba, at a time when the conflict in Ukraine has sent Russian-U.S. relations spiralling to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
Russia vacated the listening post site at Lourdes, outside Havana, in 2001. At the time, Mr. Putin cited the strapped finances of the post-Soviet Russian government and said the war in Chechnya was a higher priority than maintaining a Cold War relic half a world away.
The U.S. Congress had also pressed Russia to move out of Lourdes, linking the abandonment of the site with deals to restructure Russia’s heavy foreign debt.
Russia closed a listening post at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, at that time as well. There were no indications on Wednesday that the Kremlin intended to revive that post.
In its heyday, the Soviet signals intelligence base at Lourdes enabled Moscow to listen in on microwave transmissions of telephone conversations in the southeastern United States, keep an eye on the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic, monitor the space program at Cape Canaveral and communicate with its spies on U.S. soil.
In 1993, when Mr. Castro was chief of the Cuban armed forces, he boasted that Russia obtained 75 per cent of its strategic intelligence on the U.S. through Lourdes.
The facility includes a large array of satellite dishes and antennas spread over about 72.5 square kilometres, about 241 kilometres from the Florida coast.
The Kommersant report said that a decade of booming oil revenue meant that Russia could once again afford to operate Lourdes, and that deteriorating relations with the United States prompted a desire to reopen a peephole on a “potential enemy.”
When he was in Havana, Mr. Putin spoke publicly of a revival of military and technological co-operation with Cuba but gave no specifics.
The report in Kommersant, citing officials in the Russian security establishment that the paper did not name, said that Mr. Putin and Mr. Castro had reached an agreement in principle but that details remained to be worked out.
“I can just say one thing – finally!” the report quoted one of the officials as saying.
It was not clear what might be left of the equipment at Lourdes, or how useful it would be after 13 years of technological advances and the gravitation of much communications traffic to fiber-optic and satellite links.
Even so, Viktor Mukharovsky, a retired colonel, said in a
telephone interview that the Russian military was “extraordinarily interested” in reactivating the post, which could help it gauge the state of readiness of the U.S. military, among other things.
“It’s no secret that when we left in 2001, we expected to launch a fleet of radio electronic surveillance satellites,” he said. “But we never found the money, and – speaking softly – our satellite surveillance capabilities are still modest.”
Col. Mukharovsky said the Kremlin was unlikely to send Russian troops to guard the base, once the job of the 20th Motorized Infantry Division. That unit left Cuba in 1993, he said.
Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for Analysis of Technologies and Strategies, said Mr. Putin abandoned the bases in Cuba and Vietnam early in his first presidency, when relations with the United States had not yet curdled.
“It was a big mistake to lose this facility back in 2001,” Mr. Pukhov said.
“The United States is never grateful to people who make such steps. They just see it as a sign of weakness.”
Talks to revive the base began several years ago, he said, but they gathered pace after the crisis started in Ukraine.
“It’s no coincidence this happened now, and not, say, four years ago.”
For their part, the Cubans had held out for a while in the hope of a détente of their own with the Obama administration, but that never came, so the time was now right for both Cuba and Russia, Mr. Pukhov said. China had also expressed interest in leasing the site, he said, prompting Russia to act.
Ernest Valeyev, the deputy head of the Russian Parliament’s committee on defence, told the RIA state news agency that the deal “speaks to the defence capability of Russia, and on this level can only be welcomed.”
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