TEL AVIV – One day after a news-making handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro yesterday, the two leaders are reportedly set to meet for policy talks today, marking the first substantial discussions between U.S. and Cuban leaders since 1956.
Largely missing from the national conversation about Obama’s reproachment toward Havana is that it comes at a time of growing Russian political and military influence in Cuba, located just 90 miles from the U.S. coast.
“As the United States begins a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, we hope it will create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama told a gathering of civil society groups.
The president sought to frame the work to restore diplomatic ties as moving past the old Cold War mentality.
“The United States will not be imprisoned by the past – we’re looking to the future,” Obama said at the event today just before Castro took the floor. “I’m not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born.”
“The Cold War,” Obama added, “has been over for a long time.”
However, recent moves by Moscow to expand its influence in Cuba may be a major factor in White House calculations regarding reproachment with Cuba.
In December, the White House announced renewed ties with Cuba including the goal of reopening a U.S. embassy in Havana that has been closed for 50 years. The U.S. will also ease travel restrictions while making it easier for Americans to do business in the country by, among other things, permitting the use of U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba.
Secretary of State John Kerry was also ordered to conduct a review of Cuba’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The U.S. moves followed Moscow’s recent muscle-flexing in Cuba.
In July, the London Guardian reported Russia had quietly struck a deal with Cuba to reopen the Lourdes military base, a Soviet-era spy base and military facility that was the USSR’s largest foreign base during the Cold War. The Soviets reportedly used the base to intercept American radio and telephone communications.
Some have seen the base’s reopening as largely symbolic, since spy methods now rely more on satellites and technology that can be deployed from anywhere.
The Guardian quoted Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer downplaying the reopening of the base as a “PR move” to show Washington the “middle finger.” Still, he allowed the base could be utilized for corporate espionage, explaining “because when individuals chatter they’re not always so attentive of secure lines.”
Robert Jervis, professor of international politics at Columbia University, warned Russia could use the base to provide information to communist allies such as Venezuela and Bolivia.
There is no mistaking the base reopening combined with other recent Russian moves toward Cuba pose a challenge to the U.S.
It may in part help explain why, as part of the new rapprochement, Obama is eager to open a U.S. embassy on Cuban soil. The facility will clearly help establish a U.S. presence to check Russia in the country.
Last August, Putin paid a visit to Cuba, where the Russian strongman reportedly forgave 90 percent of Cuba’s unpaid Soviet-era debts, which totaled $32 billion.
He also reportedly signed industry, energy and trade deals with Cuba that includes a search for oil in Cuban waters.
Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University, saw Putin’s trip to Cuba as “a reply to Obama’s notion that Russia could be isolated, by saying, ‘Hey, here we are back 90 miles off your shore with a big greeting, and we’re going back into economic business here.'”
According to media reports, Putin utilized a Latin American tour in August to sign numerous military agreements to place Russian global positioning stations in not only Cuba, but also Argentina and Brazil.
In February 2013, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reportedly signed a deal with Cuba to lease eight of the country’s Russian jets.
In a move undoubtedly watched closely by the Pentagon, in April 2013 Russian Military Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov reportedly toured key Cuban military and intelligence sites.
Four months later, a spokesman for Russia’s Black Sea fleet told reporters the fleet’s flagship, the Russian guided-missile warship Moskva, would tour the coast of Cuba and Central and South American ports.
In February, it was reported another Russian warship, the Viktor Leonov CCB-175, had docked in Cuba. These moves could potentially bring thousands of Russian soldiers to Cuba.
Cuba seems to be relishing the U.S. and Russian courting, flirting right back at both countries. Two weeks ago, Cuban Ambassador to Russia Emilio Lozada traveled to Moscow, where he reportedly said Cuba is interested in restoring economic collaboration with Russia back to Soviet-era levels.
Obama’s attempts to restore ties with Cuba come as Russia has been attempting to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. reproachment with Iran and the Obama administration’s move away from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Last month, WND reported Saudi Arabia has quietly reached out to arch-foe Russia in an attempt to temper Iran’s regional influence and reach a compromise on Tehran’s nuclear program, according to a Middle Eastern defense official.
The Saudi move already has resulted in the opening of back-door dialogue between the two countries aimed at possibly forging a new alliance, the officials said.
The shifting U.S. regional alliances have seen Russia’s military relationship with long-time U.S. ally Egypt grow ever closer.
The Obama administration has been cool to the secular, moderate government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies led by Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Ever since the U.S. abandonment of Sisi’s regime, Egypt has grown increasingly closer to Russia, as evidenced by the $3.5 billion arms deal between Cairo and Moscow signed last year.
Last month, Egyptian Defense Minister Sidqi Sobqi and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced in Moscow the expansion of Russian military cooperation, which will reportedly include a historic joint naval drill in the Mediterranean Sea.
Additionally, Egyptian soldiers and officers will reportedly train in Russian military academies, reported the Moscow Times.
Now the purported opening of a new dialogue between Moscow and Riyadh seems to continue the trend of former U.S. Sunni allies reaching out to the Russian axis.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.