November 20, 2018

Cuba Insight

A publication of the Cuban Studies Institute

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING

by Jaime Suchlicki*

Cautiously, not to confront President Donald Trump or provoke a Russian-U.S. crisis, the Russians are finalizing their plans to install a Glonass station in Cuba.

The installation of the Global Satellite Navigation System (Glonass), administered by the Russian Ministry of Defense, has been in the planning stage for four years. It is supervised by Yuri Borisov a four star Russian General, and since 2018 Vice-Premier of the Russian Federation. During the recent visit to Russia of Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Borisov was next to Putin and Medvedev in all the Cuban-Russian reunions.

The Glonass system being installed in Cuba tracks satellites and worldwide communications. While not replacing the Lourdes, electronic facility established by the Soviets in the island which provided military and commercial eavesdropping capabilities, the Glonass is a more sophisticated and modern system superior to Lourdes. It could offer the Russians the same or better capabilities as Lourdes under the guise of a satellite tracking facility.

In his visit to Russia, Díaz-Canel was also able to secure a $50 million credit for Cuba to buy tanks and helicopters. In a joint statement, Díaz-Canel and Putin criticized U.S. foreign policy, which they called “Washington interference in the affairs of other countries, and the practice of using sanctions to try to destabilize other nations.” Díaz-Canel added that “being faithful followers of the legacy of Commander in Chief Fidel Castro and Army General Raúl Castro, we maintain and constantly work to strengthen relations between Cuba and Russia.

These actions and statements are a prelude to a growing Russian involvement in the island. Cuba’s purchase of weapons and installation of the Glonass system will increase substantially the number of Russian military and technical personnel in the island; it will encourage Russia’s further involvement in Latin America, especially in Venezuela and Nicaragua; it will expand Russian-Cuban espionage activities; and may accelerate the visits of Russian naval vessels to the region, including nuclear submarines.

In particular this last eventuality will increase tensions between the U.S. and Russia and may lead to a major crisis. The presence of Russian nuclear submarines in Cuban ports will rekindle memories of the 1962 Missile Crisis. This time nuclear weapons will not be on Cuban soil but in Cuban waters in Russian submarines, more difficult to track and to eliminate. The Russians will allege that U.S. submarines visit waters near Russia and that it is Russia’s right to send their vessels anywhere in the world. The Cubans will allege that they are not providing a base for the Russians but just port facilities. The “visits” by Russian submarines in the Caribbean will provide Moscow with an important strategic reach. Stopping in Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan ports will allow these submarines to remain submerged in the area for longer periods and with the ability to surface to check their weapons, make repairs and refresh their crews after long periods under water.

This will have serious implications for U.S. foreign policy. First, it will represent a challenge to U.S. leadership position in the world and particularly in Latin America. An expansionist Russia will hasten changes in other countries’ loyalties and alliances. Second, it will increase U.S. expenditures in countering this threat. New assets and personnel will have to be allocated to deal with a permanent Russian presence in the Caribbean. Third, U.S. sense of security will be challenged with some calling for a forceful response; others with negotiations with the Russians, still others with indifference. Yet it will present the Trump administration with a need to act, with limited and difficult options.

*Jaime Suchlicki is Director of the Cuban Studies Institute (CSI), a non-profit research group in Coral Gables, FL. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro & Beyond, now in its 5th edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to the Rise of the PAN, 2nd edition, and of the recently published Breve Historia de Cuba.