Russia to Reopen Soviet-Era Spy Base in Cuba

Thursday, 17 Jul 2014 03:37 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Russia and Cuba have reached an agreement to reopen a Soviet Union-era spy base near Havana that at one time employed up to 3,000 military and intelligence personnel just 155 miles from the U.S. coast.

President Vladimir Putin agreed on the deal to open the former signals intelligence facility in the community of Lourdes during his trip last week to the island as part of his Latin American tour, reports The Guardian newspaper, quoting the Russian-language newspaper Kommersant.

The Lourdes facility was initially opened in 1967 to intercept American telephone and radio communications. However, Putin closed it in 2001 because of demands from the United States and because of the $200 million a year it cost to operate it.

Putin visited Cuba last Friday. Afterward, the Kremlin press service reported he agreed to forgive some 90 percent of Cuba's unpaid Soviet-era debts, totaling $32 billion. The concession appears to be tied to the agreement to reopen the Lourdes base, reports Kommersant.

"Lourdes gave the Soviet Union eyes in the whole of the Western hemisphere … For Russia, which is fighting for its lawful rights and place in the international community, it would be no less valuable than for the USSR," Vyacheslav Trubnikov, former head of Russia's foreign intelligence service, told Kommersant, The Guardian reported.

The move comes as European Union leaders Wednesday announced their broadest sanctions against Russia yet, punishing Putin for flouting an ultimatum to end the rebellion in Ukraine, and as President Barack Obama also on Wednesday announced sanctions designed to pinch Russia’s economy by targeting financial institutions and the defense sector.

Putin, during his tour of Latin America, signed additional agreements to establish positioning stations in Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba for the Glonass global positioning system.

The Russian leader also paid a surprise visit to Nicaragua to discuss putting in a Glonass station

Alexei Pushkov, who chairs the Russian Parliament's foreign affairs committee, tweeted that Putin's travels were made to "strengthen geopolitical connections with Latin America in response to the United States' attempts to isolate Russia," the newspaper reported.

Reopening Lourdes is being seen as some as a largely symbolic move, with Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer calling the decision a "PR move" to show Washington the "middle finger," reports The Guardian, and was prompted in part by the West's influence in Ukraine.

"There's not much radio chat left of any importance. It's all going to coded channels. So I think the intel-gathering value would be much less than 20 years ago," he said. The base could still be useful when it comes to stealing commercial secrets, however, he noted, as individuals are "not always so attentive of secure lines."

However, Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, said the negotiations were likely finished before the Ukraine crisis began late last fall.

"Any country that is supporting us, whether it's Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, is welcome, and we are not as poor as in the 1990s, we are ready to pay for this," Pukhov said. "Since we have very big problems with spy satellites, which are full of Western components, and our spy ships are not in good shape and can't get close to U.S. shores, this base is extremely important for us."

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