Russia's push into the region could force others into
an arms race that no one wants or can afford
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's surprising announcement in early August that his country would seek to "re-establish" ties with the Soviet Union's old allies in Havana stirred up excitement in many foreign newsrooms, and raised eyebrows in a few foreign ministries around the world. Coming in the wake of a three-day visit to Cuba by a high-level Russian delegation, led by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, and of reports about the possibility of the Russian military's using the Caribbean island as a fueling station for its Bear bombers, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the flurry of news evoked memories of the 1962 missile crisis and a new "threat" to the United States from across the Florida Straits.
In fact, there is probably much less here than meets the eye. Putin and Russia in general seem quite upset, and have said so, about the Bush administration's decision to establish a "missile shield" in the Czech Republic (and perhaps Poland) that would theoretically be a protection from all parties, but is seen from Moscow as a threat to Russia. Sending a delegation to Cuba and talking up the possibility of nuclear bombers landing or being stationed on the island appears to be a quite classical countermove, reminding Washington that two can tango, and that one of the outcomes of the Cuban missile crisis, at least according to the Russians, was the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey—in other words, from close to Soviet territory.
Moreover, there are reasons for believing that the Cubans were neither a party to the threat nor particularly enthralled by it. They were quite displeased in 2001 when Moscow, without notice and in response to U.S. pressure, shut down the Lourdes eavesdropping and surveillance station, for which the Soviet Union and Russia had paid big bucks. Without a clear explanation about what these "new ties" would mean and a guarantee that the Lourdes precedent would not be repeated, it would seem unlikely that Havana would go along. The fact that no Cuban official, except Fidel Castro in his weekly editorial in Granma, and in a very convoluted way, mentioned the entire issue casts doubt as to how much Raúl Castro is truly committed to this new proposal.
Raúl is probably quite reluctant, because the kind of high-stakes grandstanding that the young Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev indulged in in 1962 is exactly the opposite of what he apparently desires in foreign policy. If anything, Raúl would prefer to avoid the limelight or any unnecessary conflict, and concentrate on resolving what is clearly, by his own admission, a disastrous internal economic and social situation. He would go along with this sort of shenanigans only if either Washington turns it into a matter of pride or if the Russian request were accompanied by a substantive economic payoff that would allow Cuba to reduce its life-or-death dependence on Venezuela and its friendly, complicit but increasingly erratic and precarious leader, Hugo Chávez.
Indeed, at base, this is perhaps what all the fuss is really about. Raúl Castro was around in 1962; he headed the Cuban armed forces then, as he does now. He and his older brother (at least today) know just how dangerous these kinds of games can become. Unfortunately, Chávez does not, and Raúl Castro does not have the type of intellectual or emotional influence over the Venezuelan that Fidel does, or did. Chávez could buy into a scheme such as the one the Russians are insinuating, and in fact, he is already participating in a small part of it. He was in Moscow on July 22, and signed more arms deals beyond the immense ones he had already sealed last year. He is calculated to have already bought between $2 billion and $3 billion in arms from Moscow, and he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Venezuela would purchase up to $30 billion in military goods from Russia over the next six years, including planes, submarines, tanks and Kalashnikovs.
This is a staggering sum, but of course, knowing Chávez, it may or may not ever occur. The price of oil may continue to drop; Moscow may back off if it cuts a deal with Washington on the antimissile system in Europe, and Chávez himself may not be in office forever. Still, Caracas is where the Russian push into Latin America could work, and the consequences for the military equilibrium in South America (Venezuela borders on Colombia, Guyana and Brazil) and in the Caribbean would be severe, forcing others into an arms race no one wants or can afford.
It would not be a bad idea for either this U.S. administration, or, more likely, the next one, to take up the Venezuelan matter with Putin and Medvedev. Similarly, it would be wise for Washington to refrain from any tough talk or humiliating language directed at Havana. That only riles the Cubans, and has on occasion led them, foolishly but predictably, to do things they probably would have preferred to avoid.