By Jeff Franks
August 22, 2008
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba and Russia have stirred memories of their Cold War alliance with recent talk of restoring "traditional" ties in what experts said was a warning to their old adversary, the United States.
Russia, once the island's top economic benefactor and military ally, has hinted at re-establishing a military presence in Cuba in a tit-for-tat for U.S. activities in Eastern Europe, including plans for a missile defense system, they said.
"Russia is clearly irritated at what it perceives as U.S. meddling in its neighborhood," said Cuba expert Phil Peters at the Lexington Institute in Virginia. "It seems to be sending a message that if you play on our periphery, we'll play in yours."
The ghost of Cuba-Russia relations past was raised last month by a news report that Russia might use Cuba as a refueling base for its nuclear-capable bombers. The Russian Defense Ministry later denied the report.
Such action would cross a "red line," said a U.S. Air Force general in language that brought to mind the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the United States and Russia, then the Soviet Union, almost went to war over Soviet missile bases on the island 90 miles from Florida.
Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin went to Havana this month on what was billed as an economic trip and, accompanied by Russian Security Council Secretary Gen. Nikolai Patrushev, and met with Cuban President Raul Castro.
The security council, which guides Russian national security policy, said in a following statement the two countries planned "consistent work to restore traditional relations in all areas of cooperation."
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chimed in later, saying, "We need to re-establish positions on Cuba and in other countries."
But analysts said Russia was a lot more likely to get increased trade with Cuba than it was military cooperation.
"It's impossible to imagine that anyone in the Cuban leadership would want to put their country in the bull's eye of another superpower showdown reminiscent of the missile crisis," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst now at the University of Miami.
"BLUSTER" FROM MOSCOW
"The military talk seems to be bluster on Moscow's part," Peters said. "Cuba has nothing to gain from a military relationship, which would be high-risk and out of character with the steady renovation of diplomatic relationships" under Raul Castro.
Moscow gave Cuba billions of dollars worth of aid during their long alliance and at the height of their dominance, stationed thousands of troops and advisers on the island.
When the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991, the aid dried up, Cuba plunged into a deep economic crisis and then-leader Fidel Castro accused his former communist ally of betrayal.
That bitter experience has not been forgotten in Havana and may contribute to Cuban reluctance to do anything more than business deals with the Russians, said Frank Mora at the National War College in Washington.
"As I've heard dozens of times over the years from Cubans on the island, the 'bolos' (Russians) are not to be trusted," he said.
The Soviet collapse also taught the Cubans the danger of depending on one ally, which dovetails with another Russian goal, said Dan Erikson at Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
"Russia seeks to reassert itself as a world power, which includes a renewed presence in Latin America, while Cuba wants to diversify its economic partners to reduce its dependence on Venezuela," he said, referring to Cuba's current top ally and trading partner.
Venezuela did $2.7 billion in trade with Cuba last year, compared to just $362 million for Russia.
After Sechin's visit, the Cubans described the Russians' talk with Raul Castro as "cordial and friendly" and said both sides stressed the "reactivation of economic ties."
They did not mention possible military ties but on August 10 Raul Castro issued a declaration supporting Russia in its military clash with Georgia after the former Soviet republic sent troops to try to reclaim the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia.
He accused Georgia of launching its attack "in complicity" with its ally, the United States.