Moscow officials hinted through the media on July 21 that Russian Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers, armed with nuclear-tipped long-range X-55 cruise missiles, may be deployed on Cuba, as an asymmetric response to the planned US deployments of missile defense systems in Europe. The bombers could refuel at one of Cuba’s airfields, where Russian specialists have already looked at the site. According to the unnamed officials, a “political decision to deploy to Cuba” has not been yet taken, but is being discussed (Izvestiya, Interfax, July 21). Russian authorities did not officially confirm or deny these media stories.
The situation might look on the surface like a replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war because Moscow secretly deployed nuclear missiles on the island. In 1962, Russian nukes and missiles were eventually withdrawn. Moscow promised to refrain in the future from deploying offensive weapons on Cuba, while Washington agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey and not to use force to change the Cuban Communist regime.
In 1962, Russia had less than 10 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States and they could not be kept in a ready-to-launch state longer than three consecutive days. The missile deployment in Cuba, though provocative, decreased somewhat the strategic capabilities gap between Moscow and Washington. To defend the missiles on Cuba against a possible US preventive attack, the Russian military deployed substantial conventional forces, including antiaircraft missiles.
Today, however, a deployment of strategic bombers in Cuba does not make any military sense. The planes would be too close to US air bases and could be shot down before they are able to take-off, even during a refueling stopover. The range of X-55 cruise missiles is 2000 to 3000 km, so there is no need to have them anywhere close to Cuba. To defend a temporary or permanent base, additional substantial conventional forces—jet fighters, antiaircraft missiles, combat-ready troops—must be deployed, but Russia’s depleted military would be hard pressed to find them.
Russia’s strategic bomber force is also not in order. According to START arms limitation treaty data, Russia has 15 Tu-160 and 64 Tu-95 bombers, but not all of them are airworthy. Industry is said to have almost exhausted its stockpiles of Soviet-era spare parts to fix the Tu-160 jet NK-32 engines and cannot make new ones (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, December 21, 2007). Since January, the supersonic Tu-160s have been effectively grounded, while the vintage Tu-95 Bears, designed in the 1950s, are the ones mostly flying nowadays on worldwide patrols.
This week Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez came to Moscow to meet President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Agreements on joint exploration of oilfields were signed and arms deals were discussed. Venezuela had earlier signed contracts worth some $4 billion and at present is receiving weapons that include 24 Su-30MK2 attack jets and 50 attack and transport helicopters. New contracts to supply Kilo submarines, antiaircraft missiles, and tanks, altogether worth some $2 billion, are being discussed. Chavez announced that he needs the weapons “to guarantee Venezuela’s sovereignty, threatened by the United States.” Chavez asked Russia to provide a $800 million loan to buy arms and offered Russia military bases in Venezuela (Interfax, July 23).
Russia could have a base in Cuba or in Venezuela, but the price would be high and the strategic gain questionable. Violation of the agreements that ended the Cuban missile crisis could provoke Washington to seek regime change in Cuba and Venezuela. Apparently, Moscow is not really interested in a base in Cuba or in a genuine anti-American alliance with the unpredictable Chavez. The Russian leaders and military are angered by the recent U.S.-Czech agreement—and ongoing U.S.-Polish negotiations—on stationing elements of a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland and are seeking ways to apply pressure to force a cancellation.
The Kremlin has threatened to aim missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic. A threat of replay of the Cuban missile crisis and other ideas are being considered. The political scientist Alexander Pikayev has suggested crushing the Czechs by refusing to drink Czech beer, if they go ahead with the US radar. “This would be a more serious response than cutting oil supplies to the Czech Republic or diplomatic protests,” Pikayev quipped (RIA-Novosti, July 23). Russians do indeed drink a lot of Czech beer, but Russian-based companies make virtually all of it in Russia under license, so a boycott would hurt us more than the Czechs.
Maybe Pikayev is kidding. Maybe Russian generals are kidding about a base in Cuba. Maybe Chavez is kidding. In the world of strategic deterrence based on bluff its hard to know for sure. Today it is clear that the Soviet leader during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Nikita Khrushchev, was indeed joking when he promised to bury the West.