Russia has reportedly made a deal with Cuba to reopen a Soviet-era spy base on the US’ doorstep, amid souring relations between Moscow and Washington.
The plan to reopen the signals intelligence facility in Lourdes, south of Havana, was agreed upon in principle during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the island as part of a Latin American tour last week, the Kommersant newspaper said.
Opened in 1967, the Lourdes facility was the Soviet Union’s largest foreign base, just 250km from the US coast. It employed up to 3,000 military and intelligence personnel to intercept a wide array of US telephone and radio communications, but Putin announced its closure in 2001 because it was too expensive — Russia had been paying US$200 million a year in rent — and in response to US demands.
After Putin visited Cuba on Friday, the Kremlin press service said the president had forgiven 90 percent of Cuba’s unpaid Soviet-era debts of US$32 billion — a concession that now appears to be tied to the agreement to reopen the base.
“Lourdes gave the Soviet Union eyes in the whole of the Western hemisphere... For Russia, which is fighting for its lawful rights and place in the international community, it would be no less valuable than for the USSR,” former head of Russian foreign intelligence Vyacheslav Trubnikov told Kommersant.
The move appears to be part of Moscow’s campaign to reassert itself as a geopolitical rival to the US and comes as the West is set to expand sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict.
During Putin’s Latin American tour, he also signed agreements for positioning stations in Argentina, Brazil and Cuba for GLONASS, Russia’s answer to the US’ GPS.
He added a surprise stop to discuss a GLONASS station in Nicaragua, where Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega called Putin’s first visit to the country a “ray of light.”
Alexei Pushkov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s parliament, tweeted after the trip: “The goal of Putin’s visit was to strengthen geopolitical connections with Latin America in response to the United States’ attempts to isolate Russia.”
Reopening the Lourdes base marks another low in US-Russian relations, although some experts say its significance is largely symbolic.
Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer called the deal a “PR move” to show Washington the “middle finger.”
“There’s not much radio chat left of any importance — it’s all going to coded channels — so I think the intel-gathering value would be much less than 20 years ago,” he said.
However, the base could be useful for stealing commercial secrets, Felgenhauer said, “because when individuals chatter, they’re not always so attentive of secure lines”.
However, Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, said the base does have military value and that negotiations with Cuba were likely to have been close to completion before the Ukraine crisis even started in November last year.