HAVANA, Feb. 16th On January 24th, the Cuban and Russian presidents had “a friendly and productive phone call”,
during which they reviewed the “excellent relationship between both countries and examined future developments in bilateral cooperative efforts.”
This is what the ascetic statements issued by both Governments said. Those awaiting some public report on this piece of news – whether Russia would deploy troops in Cuba and Venezuela, which Russia neither confirmed nor ruled out – have been left waiting.
Another part of the conversation might make it out via different channels. Apart from its well-known technological abilities, the Russians never stopped using human messengers (runners, according to military terminology) to carry their most confidential communications, especially those linked to defence and security.
These runners were used to negotiate the installation of Soviet nuclear forces on the island, in 1962; the withdrawal of advisors and the permanent brigade, in 1992-93; and in closing of the Lourdes Signal Intelligence Facility, in 2002.
Up until now, the Cuban and Venezuelan Governments have kept quiet about statements made by Russia’s vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Ryabkov, in mid-January, during an interview with a TV station in his own country.
“I don’t want to confirm or rule anything out. […] It all depends on the US’ actions,” he pointed out. “They ask us: why do you have this or that contingent here, there or anywhere? But what are US troops doing thousands of kilometers away from their bases?”
For 15 years at least
ROSOBORONEXPORT, Russia’s sole state export and import intermediary agency for the entire range of defence-related and dual-use products, technologies, and services, manages 85% of weapons sales and military services provided to foreign clients.
This is an impressive slice of the cake for Russia, the world’s second-largest exporter of this kind of goods, and has total control of a fifth of a market that was worth 420 billion USD in 2019, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
ROSOBORONEXPORT was expected to take on the logistics of the agreement “to modernize Cuba’s defence industry”, which was signed by both Governments in 2016, and the State’s 38-million-euro credit to “buy military equipment,” which was granted by the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, in February 2019. However, Cuba doesn’t figure among its list of clients on the Russian government service’s website.
Reestablishing bilateral relations in defence-related matters, the agreement came into effect in 2008, when the island embarked on the huge task of modernizing its military fleet supported by Russia, China, North Korea and Ukraine (an ally of Russia up until 2014). Efforts at the time were focused on renewing ground and anti-aircraft forces.
“The Military Industries Union [UIM] continues to produce a significant amount of material for ground troops […and] changes have been made at their general repairs bases [… plus,] new equipment continues to arrive,” the document read, also highlighting efforts by the FAR to increase their own production capacity of a lot of the equipment it needs.
“Reports indicate that the Cuban Government is planning on buying industrial equipment and to embark on a joint venture with Russia to manufacture light weapons,” Military Watch Magazine revealed in November 2018.
Following credits granted by Moscow, it was considered “unlikely” that Cuba would be able to buy completely new equipment, but this had a political meaning more than anything else: “facilitating closer ties that allow [Russia] to re-establish its presence in the country.”
Programs such as Project Thusano, where Cuba provides maintenance and modernization services to armed forces in South Africa, dating back to that period when investments also benefited the El Chico and Valle Grande repairs bases and industries such as the mechanical plant in Camaguey. All of them are secondary to the UIM.
“We are willing to continue to collaborate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces, with modern weapons and military equipment […]. All of the decisions that were made during that visit are being monitored and implemented,” Russian Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu announced in April 2015, in reference to President Putin’s trip to Havana in July the previous year
A relationship unaffected by political change
When the last soldiers from the Soviet military brigade – reconverted into Russian – left Cuba in July 1993, the Kremlin only managed to leave its old ally the weapons that they had used during their time in service.
Cubans didn’t suggest closing the Naval Base in Guantanamo as a requirement for the Soviet detachment’s withdrawal. Former Soviet and US troops withdrawing at the same time would have been “fair and moral […but] when the Soviet Union collapsed, the “realistic opinion” was that it made no sense for this military unit to exist on national soil […] and that there is no longer the chance, or sense in connecting it to the US naval base in Guantanamo,” noted the Cuban leadership at the time.
In 1990, the Soviet military contingent in Cuba was made up of approximately 7700 troops, divided almost equally between advisors of different weapons, the permanent brigade and the Signals Intelligence facility in Lourdes, Cole Blasier, professor of Political Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, said in the mid-1990s.
He was one of the most accredited academics in Russia-US relations during the Cold War. Amidst the crisis that besieged the Soviet Union, “even officials that were against subsequent heavy spending on Cuba, recognized the moral obligation they had not to abandon an ally […]. Important military and intelligence officials linked to Cuba continued to provide military assistance.”
The permanent brigade of mechanized infantry was inherited from the Cuban Missile Crisis. After nuclear missiles were removed, the Red Army had negotiated its presence with Cuba, as a counterweight to the Guantanamo Naval Base.
In 1964, this force was joined by the Signals Intelligence facility in Lourdes, which captured 75% of strategic information collected by Moscow, up until it was closed in September 2002. Part of this information was shared with Cuban intelligence.
In 1993, when the former Soviet contingent left the island, Cuba inherited its facilities, most of its weapons and at least 40 T-72 tanks, which are still today the FAR’s most modern ones. Nine years later, after the Lourdes facility closed, it had total control of its buildings and surrounding areas, which it then installed the University of Information Sciences into.
Closing down the Lourdes signals intelligence facility was one of the most widely covered gestures of good will in the media of Vladimir Putin trying to improve relations with the White House in the dawn of the War against Terrorism. Fidel Castro tried to get the Russian leader to change his mind, arguing that the dynamics of geopolitics would end up pitting Russia and the US in a face-off again.
“When they announced they were closing the Center and took everything away, that was a unilateral decision. They put the idea forward about ten months after Putin’s visit [in October 2011]. There hadn’t been a previous agreement,” the Cuban leader told journalist Ignacio Ramonet during the conversations that led to the book “Cien horas con Fidel” (100 hours with Fidel).
Around 2014, amidst the middle of the Ukrainian crisis and after Russia pardoned 90% of Cuba’s 35 billion USD dollar debt, rumors emerged that the Lourdes facility would reopen. While Moscow was quick to quash these rumors, it discreetly sent the order to multiply investments on the island and exchanges between high officials in both countries.
Over the past five years, Russia has not only extended the scope of its military cooperation but has also become the greatest investor in the island’s energy and railway infrastructure projects. Furthermore, in December 2020, Cuba became an observer member of the Eurasian Economic Union, a multilateral group where it is the only non-former Soviet member.
Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela can count on Moscow’s support, the Russian minister of Defense said in June 2021. Out of the threats that lie in wait for its Latin American allies, the Kremlin has stressed the “open use of military force [… so] Russia’s support is needed now more than ever.” Russia has not hesitated to offer its support in similar circumstances, in different periods of time, he reminded everyone.
In matters such as these, History has a certain weight. In 1990, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank based in London, calculated that Cuba had approximately 1,100 tanks and 650 armoured infantry vehicles, amidst a myriad of other weapons delivered by the Soviet Union at preferential rates or for free.
Cooperation at this level implied ties that transcended the simple relationship between States, this study explains, cited by Professor Blasier in his research.
Thirty-two years later, without the red flag over the Kremlin or the “historic generation” technically present in Cuba’s Palacio de la Revolucion, that argument takes on a new life: aside from different visions about the economy and politics, Havana and Moscow continue to have a common enemy, and they have a long history of military cooperation that confirms this.