Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 3

Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced yesterday that Russian and Cuban officials had gathered in a solemn ceremony on December 28 to mark the closing of Moscow’s largest overseas intelligence installation–the electronic listening center at Lourdes in Cuba. The ceremony follows President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement in October that Moscow intended to close the Lourdes facility and comes some forty years after Soviet authorities first created the listening post. That occurred in 1964, at the height of the Cold War and two years after the Cuban missile crisis. The closing of the Lourdes facility thus marks the end of another chapter of Cold War history.

It also serves to illustrate the strategic retrenchment that Moscow has been forced to undertake since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin presented Putin’s decision in October to close Lourdes (and to withdraw from the Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam as well) at home as an economizing move that would permit the Defense Ministry to focus scanty funding on military reform and the reconstruction of the armed forces. But most outside observers, both in Russia and in the West, have suggested that Putin timed the move largely to impart added momentum to the Russian-U.S. rapprochement that has flourished since the Kremlin enlisted Moscow in the U.S.-led campaign against international terror in early October. The Lourdes facility had long been a point of friction in Russian-U.S. relations, and some U.S. lawmakers had called for linking U.S. aid to Russia to closure of the listening post.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Cuban government reacted angrily to Putin’s announcement that Moscow would withdraw from the Lourdes facility. But the Russian decision may have been based at least in part on the fact that Havana was charging Moscow some US$200 million annually to rent the post. During an official trip to Cuba in December of 2000, Putin paid a visit to the Lourdes post where he delivered a brief pep talk to the 1,500 Russian inhabitants of the base. But he offered only the vaguest assurances at the time regarding the facility’s future. Subsequent talks between the two sides apparently did little to narrow their differences.

The Lourdes facility has been described as Russian Military Intelligence’s greatest overseas asset, and the Russian daily Izvestia claimed in 1998 that it provided 60-70 percent of all Russian electronic intelligence data on the United States (see the Monitor, October 18, 2001; Miami Herald, March 4, 1999).

The participants of the December 28 ceremony at Lourdes apparently included representatives of Cuba’s armed forces as well as Russia’s ambassador to Cuba, Andrei Dmitriev. The Cuban representatives reportedly decorated a number of Russian specialists who had been working at the facility. Denisov, for his part, underlined in remarks to those present that, despite the withdrawal from Lourdes, Moscow intended to maintain close and wide-ranging relations with Cuba. Those relations will apparently include what Interfax described as continuing “military-political cooperation and a widening of contacts between the defense departments of the two countries.”

Russian Defense Ministry sources, meanwhile, have been quoted as saying that the dismantling of the Lourdes facility will begin on January 15 and is likely to be concluded by the end of the month. Toward that end, three Antonov An-124 cargo transport aircraft will reportedly be dispatched to Cuba in order to return equipment from Lourdes to Russia (Reuters, AFP, December 29, 2001; Interfax, January 3).