Russia’s alleged plan to reopen a Cold War-era spy base in Cuba is another troubling sign of the deteriorating relationship between Washington and Moscow.
The news that Russia would resume work at the Lourdes surveillance station near Havana — around 150 miles off the Florida coast — was first published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant on Wednesday. Numerous media outlets then quoted unnamed Kremlin sources confirming the development.
Then President Vladimir Putin added to the sense of political theater by denying the report. Speaking at the BRICS summit in Brazil, Putin said: “Russia is capable of fulfilling the defense capacity tasks without this component.”
Yet the episode raised several questions about the endgame of the tensions that have arisen between the US and Russia since Putin used troops to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
“It’s a slap in the face of the US,” Brian Latell, an ex-CIA agent and senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, told VICE News. “It’s a ratcheting up of things.”
'Putin is kind of like a one-man show. He doesn’t have to deal with anybody. Whatever his latest whim is, he does it. He’s always riding horses without his shirt.'
Closed in 2001 when Russia was in the economic doldrums, the 28-square-mile facility once housed 3,000 spies and technicians, the most outside the Soviet Union. Their mission was to eavesdrop on telephone calls relayed by American satellites and coordinate the Red Fleet’s comings and goings in the Western Hemisphere.
Today, technology advances make the place an anachronism, says Gene Poteat, a retired CIA scientist who specialized in signal intelligence (a fancy way of describing electronic snooping) and president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
“There is no technical advantage,” Poteat told VICE News. “Russians have good facilities inside the US. They have that new embassy in Washington, DC on a hill overlooking the whole East Coast. It’s designed to be an ideal location to intercept all sorts of signals and communications. They have trawlers off our coast. They have planes flying on our periphery.”
To Poteat, the story was a calculated snub by Putin on the same day President Barack Obama unveiled tougher US sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine.
“I’d call it an electoral-political move, to get our attention, pull our chain,” Poteat said. “Putin is kind of like a one-man show. We have to have Congress debate forever. He doesn’t have to deal with anybody. Whatever his latest whim is, he does it. People around the world marvel at his antics and charisma. He’s always riding horses without his shirt.”
Others were sounding alarm bells. “This is a big deal,” Vince Houghton, historian and curator at the International Spy Museum in Washington, told VICE News.
The Russians don’t have a system of surveillance satellites around the planet, said Houghton. Their surveillance ships are few. Their embassy contains sophisticated spy tools, but the US could jam them if necessary. Lourdes would fill a major gap in the Russians’ espionage operation, including a vantage point on their American counterparts in electronic surveillance in Fort Meade, Maryland, home of the NSA.
“This gives the Russian coverage where they didn’t have coverage before,” said Houghton. “If this does reopen and a lot of resources are put into it, this really does increase Russian capabilities.”
This move will further dampen the prospects for a rapprochement between the US and Cuba anytime soon.
Latell didn’t think Lourdes would ever be as important to Moscow as it was during the Cold War. He was more concerned about what a potential reopening meant for US-Cuban relations.
The news broke after Putin announced that Russia would forgive around $32 billion of Cuba’s debt to the Soviet Union. Nobody ever expected Cuba to repay that debt. But now the impoverished country’s balance sheet will look more attractive to other lenders who might help prop up Cuban leader Raul Castro’s regime, which is struggling to survive amid an embargo that prohibits American trade with the island.
“This move will further dampen the prospects for a rapprochement between the US and Cuba anytime soon,” said Latell. “This will give ammunition to all of those in Congress on both sides of the aisle who say ‘We can’t have better relations with this human-rights-violating, anti-US dictatorship.’”
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johndyerjr