Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 231

Clinton administration officials are reported to be keeping a wary eye on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s three-day visit to Cuba, which is scheduled to start tomorrow. It is the first by a Russian president to Havana since the demise of the Soviet Union, and its likely import is being looked at in several ways. At one level, there is speculation that the visit is part of a broader reorientation and reinvigoration of Russian foreign policy more generally under Putin. In this context, the visit is said to be part of a Russian move to restore relations with a number of the countries which were closest to Moscow during the Soviet period and which in more recent years have been labeled as renegade or “rogue” states by Washington. This list includes not only Cuba, but also North Korea, Iraq and Libya. In much the same way, the visit could also be seen as part of a broader symbolic return to some of Russia’s Soviet-era legacies. In this regard, it is perhaps no coincidence, for example, that the visit follows the Kremlin’s recent push to reestablish the Soviet national anthem in Russia.

Putin’s visit is also being seen by some as an effort to take advantage of the U.S. election impasse by reasserting a Russian presence in the Western hemisphere at a time when Washington is hamstrung by domestic political concerns. Russian officials have reportedly denied having any such intention, and have pointed out that the planning for this week’s visit was actually initiated during a meeting between Putin and Cuban leader Fidel Castro at a UN summit this past September. For all of that, the Cuba visit appears to be part of a broader pattern of diplomatic behavior in which Moscow has appeared anxious to exploit both the U.S. election deadlock and more general misgivings around the world related to Washington’s global dominance and some of its security policies (Washington Post, December 6).

Putin’s Havana visit is also being examined, not surprisingly, for what it portends more narrowly about bilateral relations between Russia and Cuba. That has not been an easy task this week due to the unwillingness of either Russian or Cuban official sources to reveal much about the Russian president’s planned agenda in Cuba. An effort to boost bilateral trade between the two countries will apparently figure strongly in this week’s talks, as will discussions related to repayment of Cuba’s estimated US$11 billion debt to Moscow. However, the unexpected presence on the Russian delegation of two ministers in particular–Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov–has prompted speculation that the Russian-Cuban discussions could also involve issues of considerable concern to the United States (Washington Post, December 6; AFP, December 11).

With regard to Sergeev, those issues could involve either or both Russian-Cuban arms dealings and the Russian listening station in the Cuban town of Lourdes. Given the size of Cuba’s debt to Russia and the degree to which it has complicated bilateral relations between the two countries over the past decade, it seems unlikely that any significant Russian arms sale to Cuba could be on the table during this week’s talks. It is nevertheless true that media reports in recent weeks have spoken of Moscow’s new determination to peddle weapons to former Soviet client states (The Guardian, December 5), and authority for Russian arms exports has recently been placed under the authority (nominally at least) of the Russian Defense Ministry (see the Monitor, November 22). Moscow armed the Cuban army during the Soviet period, and has reportedly continued to provide Havana with spare parts over the past decade as part of broader barter arrangements.

Remarks made this week by an unidentified high-ranking Kremlin source suggested that the Russian listening facility at Lourdes would not be a major focus of this week’s Russian-Cuban talks. The source claimed that technological developments, including space communications, have lessened Moscow’s dependence on the Lourdes listening post, and that it is “highly improbable” that Putin will discuss in any detail Russian-Cuban military-technical cooperation during his talks with Castro. The issue, however, will be handled by Russian and Cuban defense officials and experts (Itar-Tass, December 10).

The Lourdes facility has been a lightening rod for Russian-U.S. tensions and is likely to be highlighted anew by U.S. media during Putin’s Cuba visit. Indeed, the issue made some headlines this past spring when, amid reports that the Russians were renovating and modernizing the facility, U.S. lawmakers drafted legislation which would restrict American aid to Russia were the listening post not closed down. Past reports have stressed how important the Lourdes facility is to Russia. It is said to provide some 60-70 percent of all the electronic data Moscow receives on the United States. Some 1,000 Russian technicians are reported to be working at Lourdes, and Moscow is believed to be paying between US$100 and US$300 million per year to rent the facility (see the Monitor, May 9).

The Juragua nuclear plant has been even more controversial. Construction of two Soviet-designed light-water reactors began in the early 1980s, but work on the plant was halted in 1992 because of financial problems brought on in part by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then the Cubans have tried to revive the project, but have had little success. That has been in part because of intense U.S. opposition to completion of the Juragua facility, which has discouraged Western companies from any involvement in the construction effort. Russian-Cuban efforts to complete the plant, meanwhile, have also foundered on financial difficulties. Washington opposes the plant, which lies only about 200 miles from the southern tip of Florida, on the grounds that it would pose a serious environmental threat (see the Monitor, September 30, 1999). The presence on the Russian delegation of Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, who has been an aggressive proponent of increased export of Russian nuclear technologies, suggests that the Juragua plant project will be discussed during this week’s talks in Havana.

The key to this week’s talks will likely be the way in which Putin chooses to handle the debt question and related economic issues. Under President Boris Yeltsin, a suddenly impoverished Moscow adopted a pragmatic policy of keying bilateral relations to economic imperatives. Yeltsin eliminated the vast subsidies which Moscow had previously used to support Cuba’s economy, and broader relations between the two countries withered as a consequence. Even the one major trading effort between Russia and Cuba launched during the Yeltsin era–an arrangement whereby Moscow would provide Cuba with oil in exchange for Cuban-grown sugar–never operated with any success.

It remains to be seen whether Putin will feel as economically constrained as Yeltsin. Thanks to high world oil prices, Moscow is currently flush with cash, and may choose to rebuild relations substantively with Cuba in a fashion which would presumably include some favorable economic arrangements for Havana. Some form of Russian underwriting of the Cuban economy might be made easier by a recent Cuban-Venezuelan deal that provides Cuba with cheap oil supplies to meet some of its needs. If Putin and his entourage choose to keep their eyes focused firmly on the bottom line, however, it is possible that this week’s talks will produce little to boost bilateral ties substantively, though Putin’s trip could still produce abundant proclamations of Russian-Cuban friendship and of the two countries’ common approach to a host of international issues.