The emerging thrust of Russian foreign policy was evidenced even by the location from which Putin announced the pardoning of Pope: Havana, Cuba. The Russian president began a three-day visit to the former Soviet client state on December 13 which, in both its timing (amid what was still a U.S. presidential deadlock) and in the likely substance of its discussions was destined to be little appreciated in Washington. Indeed, Putin’s visit to Cuba reflected what appears to be a new Russian determination to rebuild ties with a host of countries that were allied with Moscow during the Soviet period. Not surprisingly, many of these countries–including not only Cuba but Iraq, Libya and North Korea–are considered by the United States to be rogue states. Among other things, Moscow appears set to try to peddle arms to these countries. Given Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s presence on Putin’s delegation in Havana, that subject appears to be on the agenda of the Cuban-Russian talks. Moscow and Havana also seemed likely to discuss two other issues that have generated concern in the United States: the completion of the nuclear power plant at Juragua, Cuba, only two hundred miles from the Florida coast, and the future of a key Russian intelligence asset–the Russian listening post at Lourdes.
Increased assertiveness and a more open defiance of the United States are nevertheless likely to be counterbalanced by continued Russian efforts to improve ties with the West more generally. Indeed, tensions between the United States and its European allies, not to mention emerging faultlines in Europe and the desire of European governments to assure friendly relations with Moscow, will provide Russia with ample diplomatic openings and opportunities.
Two recent developments epitomize what is likely, in the immediate future at least, to be an increasingly shifty diplomatic landscape. During the November 27-28 OSCE summit in Vienna, Moscow found itself sharply at odds with both the United States and Europe over a host of issues that included Russia’s continuing war in the Caucasus. More recently, however, during a meeting of NATO defense chiefs in Brussels, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev appeared to signal Moscow’s willingness to further improve relations with the Western alliance. But while Sergeev’s more forthcoming attitude was undoubtedly welcomed at NATO headquarters, his behavior appeared aimed also at exploiting differences between the United States and Europe. That is, he appeared to be acting in support of a broader Russian policy that aims at making Moscow look like a more desirable partner for Europe by highlighting differences within the alliance over U.S. missile defense plans, over the creation of an all-European rapid reaction military force, and over what is being seen in Europe as a diminished U.S. commitment to NATO peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans.