Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 91

aid to Russia was back in the news last week following a vote by a U.S. House panel which would restrict American assistance to Moscow if Russia fails to close down a Cold War-era listening post in Cuba. The May 4 vote by the House International Relations Committee would block new U.S. refinancing loans to Russia if Moscow continues to operate the Lourdes intelligence facility just south of Havana. Approval of the bill came despite objections from the Clinton administration. The House panel did, however, attach an amendment to the bill, supported by Democrats, that would give the president final authority over whether to waive the restrictions if he deemed it to be in the national interest.

Not surprisingly, the Russian Foreign Ministry protested the House committee vote. In remarks to reporters on May 6, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that the bill was “unjustified” and a “violation of all international norms.” Asserting that it “constitutes interference in the internal affairs” of a foreign country, he urged the Clinton administration not to approve the legislation (AP, Russian agencies, May 6).

The political battle over the May 4 bill, which was authored by Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, appears to be shaping up in a fashion similar to that which took place surrounding the Iran Nonproliferation Act. That bill was also aimed at punishing Russia for its cooperation with a third country–in this case, Iran–which Washington deemed a security threat. In that instance, as in this one, the legislation was weakened so as to give the president final say over whether any punitive actions would in fact be taken against Moscow. And then, as now, the Clinton administration opposed the measure while the Russian government protested against it, arguing that it was a violation of international law to punish Russia for its relations with a third country.

The facility in question is the Russian spy base at Lourdes, just south of Havana. Ros-Lehtinen and others who see the base as a threat to U.S. interests have pointed to what they say are major improvements to the facility that have been made by the Russians in recent years. Those improvements include the construction of three new satellite dishes, new buildings, new parking lots and a swimming pool. Ros-Lehtinen contends, moreover, that since 1996 Moscow has also upgraded the post with “voice recognition facilities, more sophisticated computers for intercepting specific telephone numbers, faxes and computer data; and the means by which to engage in cyber warfare against the United States.” Some in the U.S. intelligence community nevertheless question whether the construction actually constitutes an improvement–or expansion–of the Lourdes center, or whether it merely signifies an effort to maintain the aging facility (AP, May 4; The Miami Herald, March 4, 1999).

Experts do agree, however, that whatever the significance of the recent construction work at Lourdes, the facility, which was built in the 1970s, does serve as a major listening post for Russian intelligence in the Western hemisphere. Indeed, the respected Jane’s Intelligence Review has described Lourdes as “perhaps the greatest single overseas asset of the GRU” (the acronym for Russian military intelligence). And a report in the Russian newspaper Izvestia in November of 1998 said that Lourdes provides 60-70 percent of all Russian electronic intelligence data on the United States. There are reportedly about 1,000 Russian technicians working at Lourdes, and Moscow is believed to be paying between US$100 and US$300 million per year in rent for the facility. Much of that sum, however, is reportedly paid in Russian weaponry and spare parts.

In a 1998 report to Congress, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen expressed concern about the continued operation of the listening post and the “use of Cuba as a base for intelligence activities directed against the United States.” More generally, however, the Clinton administration has suggested that the Lourdes facility does not pose a threat to U.S. interests, and that it may even serve a beneficial function insofar as it allows Russia to certify that Washington is meeting its international arms control commitments. Some in the administration have also argued that Moscow does not have the money at present to fund significant improvements to the Lourdes facility (Miami Herald, March 4, 1999).

Indeed, money appears to be at the heart of the problems which have afflicted relations between Russia and Cuba since the demise of the Soviet Union. Despite frequent talk by diplomats of ongoing friendship and cooperation between the two countries, diplomats from Russia and Cuba have apparently been unable to resolve their differences over repayment of Havana’s estimated US$20 billion Soviet-era debt to Russia. That issue reportedly reared its head once again during a visit to Moscow by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez in January of this year. Although Perez reportedly embraced with enthusiasm both Moscow’s call for a “multipolar” world and the Kremlin’s rationale for its bloody war in Chechnya, reports suggested that Russian diplomats had focused instead on the debt question. There appeared to be little progress during the visit on that issue (EFE via COMTEX, January 26; Russian agencies, January 25-26).

What remains to be seen is whether Moscow will continue to allow these financial problems to hamstring relations with Havana now that Vladimir Putin has been inaugurated as president. Putin has suggested that he will take a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy issues, and that could mean more bad news for Havana. But Putin has also put an accent on the need to rebuild Russian military power and the country’s great power status. And that could mean–particularly if Russia’s economy continues to improve–that Putin may be more willing than his predecessor to trade some economic costs for the geopolitical gains that might come from a more active friendship with Cuba.