The Russians are coming back to Cuba.
After a 13-year absence, Russia will be reviving the former USSR's biggest overseas intelligence-gathering base, at Lourdes, Cuba, barely 100 miles from the Florida coast, the major Moscow daily Kommersant reported Wednesday.
Russian experts say that while surveillance technology has moved on since the listening post was closed in 2001, and a lot of snooping is done via the Internet these days, location still matters. Lourdes, a sprawling 28-square mile facility in a Havana suburb, opened in 1962. It once housed 3,000 Soviet intelligence specialists who tracked air and sea movements throughout the Western Hemisphere, monitored space launches from Cape Canaveral, intercepted telephone and radio signals, and even kept track of TV broadcasts.
According to Kommersant, the deal to reopen the facility had been under negotiation for months, but was finalized last Friday when Vladimir Putin visited Havana on the first leg of a major Russian charm offensive in Latin America. Among other things, Mr. Putin announced a write-off of about 90 percent of Cuba's $32 billion Soviet-era debt and reportedly inked important economic contracts, including concessions for Russian oil companies to drill off Cuba's coast.
Another reported bargain would enable Russia to position base stations in Cuba for its trouble-plagued Glonass global positioning system, which is seen as a rival to the US-run GPS network. Russia has complained that Washington's refusal to host any Glonass stations on US territory amounts to unfair competition, and part of Putin's brief on his current trip to Latin America is reportedly to find alternative sites in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Brazil.
But the plan to resurrect Lourdes implicitly projects Russian military power once again into the US backyard after a lengthy absence.
"Lourdes is very well located. We'll reopen this facility within six months, and from it we will be able to watch the entire Western Hemisphere," says Anatoly Tsyganok, an expert at the independent Moscow Institute for Political and Military Analysis. "No wonder the Americans are anxious about this."
Cutbacks and goodwill
It was Putin who elected to close Lourdes, along with Russia's only other foreign listening post at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, for reasons the Kommersant article describes as a mixture of financial cutbacks and desire to express goodwill toward the US. The Russian media insists that the US had specifically requested that Moscow shut the Lourdes facility down. In fact, the US House of Representatives did pass a bill in 2000 that mandated an end to loan forgiveness for Russia unless it closed Lourdes, although it was never passed by the Senate and subsequently died.
Kommersant quoted Kremlin sources as saying that "the decision to return to Cuba can be explained by Russia's long strengthened financial capabilities, as well as cooling of relations with the US."
Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow, says it's another sign of irreparably deteriorating US-Russia relations.
"In the present atmosphere, with the US threatening Russia with more sanctions, this is a convenient way of saying that we will not take that lying down," he says. "The message is that we can strike back, even in asymmetric ways. The US does something to damage our national interests, so we find ways to retaliate – even if it's largely symbolic – that will be heard loud and clear in Washington."