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A new Cuban missile crisis? Unlikely, experts say

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, left, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were Cold War allies, seen here in Moscow in 1963. 

Associated Press (1963)

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, left, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were Cold War allies, seen here in Moscow in 1963. 

Anyone who was in grade school in the '50s undoubtedly remembers those "duck and cover'' drills, based on the absurd idea that a wooden desk could be a shield against nuclear attack. But that was the Cold War era, which hit its terrifying height in 1962 when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was building missile bases 90 miles away in Cuba.

The threat of real war abated after the Soviets agreed to dismantle their bases in exchange for the United States' removing its own missiles from Turkey near the Soviet border.

But given that crisis, there has been surprisingly little reaction to reports that Russia — the biggest remnant of the old Soviet Union — is again considering a military presence in Cuba.

"We should restore our position in Cuba and other countries,'' Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying Monday by a Russian news agency. And the daily Izvestia cited a top Russian military source as saying that bombers capable of carrying long-range missiles could be stationed on Cuban soil.

The Russians could well be serious about improving their strained relations with Cuba. But the military talk is probably part warning, part worry over the Bush administration's plans to base missiles in Eastern Europe.

"The fact the United States is going to deploy a missile defense system in Europe has led some people in Russia to strut their stuff and say, 'Okay, if you're going to be in our area, we're going to put something in your area,' " says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a think tank near Washington that studies military issues.

Peters notes that the White House has been "extremely placid'' about the reports, which the Russian Defense Ministry says were based on misleading information. And a Cuban diplomat said Cuba is unlikely to revive military cooperation with Russia, especially after Putin's abrupt shutdown in 2001 of an electronic listening post near Havana that monitored communications in the southeastern United States and earned Cuba a reported $200-million in rent.

While the bomber issue remains up in the air, the reports are evidence of two significant realities: Putin remains a powerful figure, and Russia is again a powerful country.

Though his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has the constitutional authority to handle foreign affairs, it was Putin who reportedly said that Russia should extend its influence globally. That's because "Putin hasn't entirely reconciled himself to no longer being president,'' says Marshall Goldman, an expert on Russian politics at Harvard University.

And thanks to its wealth of oil and other natural resources, Russia has made a stunning economic rebound since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

Then, "Russia had so many difficulties at home that it couldn't worry about what was going on outside,'' Goldman says. "Russians now feel they are in a much stronger position, so they're trying to reclaim territory they thought they had come in possession of before.''

Cuba and the Soviet Union were close during the Cold War, when Cuban leader Fidel Castro's communist regime got billions of dollars in Soviet aid in the form of a guaranteed market for Cuban sugar and oil. But after the Soviet breakup, the Russian government claimed that Cuba owed it large sums of money.

"Castro told them to stick it in their ear,'' Peters says.

As relations with Russia soured, Cuba turned to the European Union and communist China for aid. It also forged strong alliances with the anti-American regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, both major oil and gas exporters.

Cuba's own oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico have drawn attention from many countries, even as they remain off-limits to American companies because of the U.S. embargo. On a recent visit, a Russian delegation discussed helping Cuba explore its offshore fields and upgrade its oil storage and transportation facilities.

"The Russians are looking at a whole variety of ways in which to get involved economically in Cuba — possibly oil, possibly something in the tourism sector or biotechnolgy,'' Peters says.

Putting bomber bases as well as oil platforms on Cuban territory may be more bluff than anything else. Even the former head of Russia's strategic missile forces said it would make little sense to base bombers where they could easily be destroyed by an "enemy'' — presumably the United States.

But while the talk about Cuban bases may be only talk, Russia has made it clear that it doesn't want U.S. missiles anywhere near its own territory.

"I think this is a lot of strutting by the Russians, frankly,'' Peters says, "and if anything real comes out of this, it will be stronger economic relations with Cuba.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

A new Cuban missile crisis? Unlikely, experts say 08/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 11, 2008 10:01am]
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