3 views from Russia on Lourdes and the U.S.

After Russian legislator Dmitri Gorovtsov told the daily Izvestia last week that the Duma would not rule out the reopening of an intelligence-gathering base in Lourdes, Cuba, the online daily Svobodnaya Pressa (Free Press) asked for reaction from experts on defense issues and Latin America. Progreso Weekly has translated these interviews by reporter Maria Beztchastnaya. For the original report in Progreso Weekly, click here.


First to be interviewed was Mikhail Yurevich Belyat, former journalist and press secretary at the Duma, now teaching in Moscow at the Russian State University for the Humanities.

Mikhail Yurevich Belyat: "I personally do not see any objective problems to its [Lourdes] restoration."
Mikhail Yurevich Belyat: “I personally do not see any objective problems to its [Lourdes] restoration.”
Q.: Will Moscow strengthen its presence in Cuba in view of the United States’ attempts to draw the island into its sphere of influence?

A.: The U.S. has not yet fully restored relations with Cuba, although there is progress, especially when compared with recent years, when the hostility between the two countries was stagnant.

With regard to the base in Lourdes, I personally do not see any objective problems to its restoration. This is a radio-tracking base, not missiles that directly threaten the United States.

Q.: But recently we said we were not going back. Why was that?

A.: Just a few years ago, relations between Russia and the United States were at a different level. Today the situation has changed significantly. There has been a geopolitical confrontation between the two countries.

In this new environment we need to change our attitude to such things as the ability to return to the base in Lourdes. I think that everything will depend on the decisions about its feasibility. If the military and political authorities decide that it is really necessary, I see no obstacles to the restoration of the base.

Q.: Is our presence in Cuba important for our foreign policy?

A.: Cuba plays an important role in the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the United States because of its geographical position. No wonder it’s called “an unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

This factor dictated Cuba’s relation to the United States, which sought to regain it after the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

For the same reason, we always wanted to have this island as our friend and ally. And so it was until 1991, when we slammed the door and left Cuba. Now we go back. Of course, not to the same extent as before.

I am glad to see that this process is not based on ideological principles, as during Soviet times, but on economic, strategic and pragmatic basis. Today there are geostrategic considerations on our part.

Q.: And why does this process of return go so slowly, when in the mid-2000s the economic situation for this purpose was favorable?

A.: Our relations with Cuba began to warm up and recovered after 2000. That was due to a change in the state foreign policy toward all of Latin America, including Cuba.

Why didn’t we, after leaving and slamming the door, return just as suddenly? There are a lot of reasons, and on this subject one could write a doctoral dissertation.

You could say that the Cubans had reason not to trust us after all that we did there in 1991. Our departure hit Cuba hard. We sharply severed all ties, primarily economic. But the island’s economy was based on cooperation with the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc.

After we left, the country fell not just into a crisis but into an economic collapse. I’m not saying that people dropped from starvation in the streets, but it was really a time of hunger. The food distributed was strictly rationed, there was nothing. Cuba barely survived.

Cuba spent 10 years in this situation but managed to rise from its knees. At this point, we began to return to the island. Of course, considering the above, the Cubans had a fair share of distrust toward us and their former warmth was gone.

This is one of the reasons that our current return is much more modest than our presence during the Soviet era.


Svobodnaya Pressa then interviewed Alexei Valenevich Fenenko, senior researcher at the Institute for International Security Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

FENENKO: The radio monitoring base at Lourdes was closed after the Bush administration said it would shift U.S. military activity to the West Coast, on the Pacific Ocean. This is the main problem with reopening the base in Lourdes.

Alexei Valenevich Fenenko: "We [Russians] need to recognize that in Latin America we are not a player."
Alexei Valenevich Fenenko: “We [Russians] need to recognize that in Latin America we are not a player.”
The Americans have not been so zealous in transferring their infrastructure to the Pacific as they promised 15 years ago. So now the intelligence center in Cuba would be useful for us. But if [the Americans] continue the trend to transfer military infrastructure to California, the Lourdes base will be of little use to us, except as a small but beautiful demonstrative gesture.

Q.: So, from a practical standpoint, it does not give us a significant advantage?

A.: We need to recognize that in Latin America we are not a player. Without the ocean-going fleet, we cannot do something really significant there. All that we can do is to tease the Americans with demonstrative agreements, no more.

We can also engage in military-technical cooperation and deliver weapons to Latin American countries. But the solvency of these regimes is a very serious concern. If we consider our reactivation in Latin America as a response to U.S. activity in Georgia or Ukraine, it makes sense. But the visit of the president [Putin] and government delegations to Cuba or Venezuela is almost the limit of our capabilities.

The Americans understand this. They have always believed that the Russian presence in Europe is serious and dangerous for their interests. But without the ocean-going fleet, our country is not a very serious player in Latin America.

Q.: Nevertheless, the United States began to improve relations with Cuba at the end of last year. Was it because of our efforts there?

A.: Obama needed to demonstrate that he was having some success in Latin America. He tried in 2009 to renew the Organization of American States and the concept of pan-Americanism, but the idea didn’t prosper. By the end of his term, Obama had to show at least some results in this direction.

To do this, he began to flirt with Cuba. The geopolitical war between Russia and the United States in Europe is really serious. But in Latin America on our part — it’s just a set of gestures.


Finally, Svobodnaya Pressa interviewed Igor Yurevich Korotchenko, editor of National Defense magazine, who is convinced that the Lourdes base has important practical value.

Igor Yurevich Korotchenko: "What does our influence in Latin America have to do with the possibility of electronic intelligence?"
Igor Yurevich Korotchenko: “What does our influence in Latin America have to do with the possibility of electronic intelligence?”

KOROTCHENKO: The base at Lourdes is the center of electronic intelligence, which in its classic version is carried out with ground stations or centers. If we talk about the interception of information that circulates via radio relay, through the troposphere, via HF and VHF radio, a stationary facility is required.

As for satellites, they are radiotechnical intelligence, and utilize totally different ranges and tools against the sites being monitored: ultra-high-frequency radio, mostly characteristic of complex systems, such as air defense, missile defense and other weapons. No satellite intelligence can replace the classic radioelectronic surveillance.

The bulk of public information transmitted by radio, which is not encrypted, originates in and around the United States. Cuba is the ideal starting point for the interception, analysis and synthesis of such data.

Q.: Some believe that reopening the base does not make sense, if we cannot claim a significant role in Latin America.

A.: What does our influence in Latin America have to do with the possibility of electronic intelligence? It has nothing to do. That’s the kind of argument that says that if a Mercedes goes fast, a Zaporozhets must go just as fast.

[Translator’s Note: Zaporozhets were inexpensive Ukrainian cars, modeled after the FIAT 600, that were mass-produced in the 1960s.]

Q.: Will we intensify cooperation with Cuba once the United States restores diplomatic relations with Havana?

A.: Washington is preparing for the fact that the Castro brothers will soon depart and Cuba will be led by other people. The Americans are trying to develop this situation to their maximum advantage. To do this, they need a permanent foothold, a presence on the island. That springboard will be the U.S. Embassy. That’s why they’re aiming for a normalization of relations.

The Castro brothers will go, obviously. But we forgive them their debts instead of demanding that, in exchange, they give us a 99-year lease on military bases. The Americans are smart. They do not forgive any debts, but open an embassy on the island in order to influence the transformation to a post-Castro Cuba.

Fidel Castro no longer leads. Raúl is an old man who in 3 to 5 years at most will fail physically or intellectually. To the Americans it is important to create a “color revolution” to transform the regime so that Cuba turns from an enemy into a neutral country or an ally. This program is the objective of American policy.

Q.: Can we do anything to counter that?

A.: This question should be asked to those who have engaged in the direction of Latin America. I believe that forgiving debts is not the thing to do. A debt is a debt, and will be a debt 100 years from now. We write off them without any calculation. This is the wrong policy.

Debts should be converted into preferences for Russian businesses. Or into a 99-year non-revocable rent-free lease for the conditional practice of electronic intelligence. So, it is necessary to negotiate.

We have written off too many debts, and that’s money out of our budget, our pocket and the pocket of previous generations. Yet, today the whole world is extremely pragmatic.