The media has been abuzz today at the prospect of Russian nuclear bombers being stationed in Cuba if the US goes ahead with plans for missile defence bases in Eastern Europe.
The story has riled the US enough that a US general has been wheeled out to tell the world’s press that any Russian attempt to build another nuclear base in Cuba would cross US “red line”.
The story broke earlier this week, when Russian newspaper Izvestia quoted an un-named source from within the Russian military. He told the Russian daily:
“While they are deploying the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, our strategic bombers will already be landing in Cuba.”
The quote hasn’t been independently confirmed, but the Russian Defence Ministry added fuel to the fire when they refused to comment on the story.
The prospect of Russian nuclear forces being stationed in Cuba – which is, after all, only 90 miles from the US coast – would bring back some rather unpleasant memories for the US of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where the Soviet Union under Nikita Kruschev launched an audacious and foolhardy bid to station nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island.
And so, not surprisingly, the US Air Force has wheeled out a top general to warn Russia off. General Norton Schwartz, who will soon be appointed as the US Air Force’s chief of staff told reporters that:
“If they did I think we should stand strong and indicate that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America.”
So, will Russia actually station nuclear bombers in Cuba?
In all likelihood, this is just another episode in the war of words between Russia and the US over the proposed US missile shield. Russia’s dual leadership of Putin and Medvedev are pragmatic, cautious men, and won’t fancy the chance to repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union’s most unpredicatble leader.
This is especially true when we consider that the proposed US missile shield doesn’t actually bother Russia all that much – it’s much more important to the Kremlin as an opportunity for Russia to give the US a bit of a verbal bashing every now and then.
Having said that, Russia’s military is in a much more expansive mood these days – witness the first naval patrols in the Arctic since the fall of the Soviet Union, and recent Tu-95 bomber flights near British airspace. It would be no surpise if it is considering how and where on the globe it could place military bases in the longer term.
Russia had a permanent military base in Cuba until quite recently – it was closed in 2002, partly because it was difficult to justify the $200 million per year running costs. But thanks to Russia’s booming economy, the military is much better resourced than it used to be. Perhaps $200 million per year doesn’t seem all that expensive these days for an ambitious country that aspires to global influence but which has fewer international military bases than snaller powers such as France, or the United Kingdon.
One thought that occurs is that, if Cuba’s history makes the prospect of a base there too much of a hot potato, perhaps a base somewhere else in the region would be a better long term bet.
Anyone want to take a bet on a Russian military base being created in Venezuela sometime over the next decade?
UPDATE 25/7: Hugo Chavez is certainly up for it. Asked if Venezuela would host Russian bases, he told reporters:
Russia has enough resources to secure its presence in different parts of the world. If Russian armed forces would like to be present in Venezuela, they will be welcomed warmly.
We will raise flags, beat drums and sing songs, because our allies will come, with whom we have a common worldview.
No comment yet from the slightly embarrassed Russian government, though…