Friends Reunited? The Renaissance in Russia-Cuba Strategic Ties

Statement for the press after the Russian-Cuban talks. With President of the Council of State and President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba Raul Castro. - cc, modified,

The recent presence of Russian warships In Havana —including the frigate Admiral Gorshkov and the nuclear submarine Kazan— for naval exercises has drawn considerable attention in strategic communities all over the world. Considering comparisons to historical precedents and the degree of tension in the current dynamics of great power strategic competition, the resonance of echoes from the Cold War has been unavoidable, but perhaps somewhat overblown. In fact, an in-depth analysis reveals that — rather than foreshadowing an ominous game-changer or a tectonic masterstroke — this development is consistent with long-range geopolitical patterns and the incremental transactional convergence of Moscow and Havana’s national interests in the post-Cold War era.


Prophetic Precedents

Since the age of discovery, Cuba has represented a strategic pivot worth controlling. As the largest of the Greater Antilles, this tropical insular position (the heart of the ‘American Mediterranean’ as per geopolitical theorist Nicholas Spykman) is a gateway for reaching much of the Caribbean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Northern and Southern landmasses of the American hemisphere. At the height of its imperial power, the dominion of Cuba by the Spanish Crown was instrumental for the military adventures of the Conquistadors and the logistical management of highly profitable trade networks that were established between the Spanish Main and the Iberian port of Seville. Unsurprisingly, Cuba was often targeted by European pirates. In the context of the late 19th century Spanish-American war, the U.S. —in accordance with the underlying geopolitical prescriptions of the Monroe Doctrine— militarily expelled the Spaniards from their last residual outposts in the American Hemisphere, including Cuba. Shortly after the island’s independence —and based on various shared historical and sociocultural common denominators— Mexico entertained the possibility of annexing Cuba, but the project ultimately did not come to fruition.

After the seismic breakout of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Cuba aligned itself to the geopolitical orbit of the Soviet Union. In turn, the Kremlin secured a beachhead in the American Hemisphere. This mutually convenient symbiosis was a result of strategic, political, and economic factors. Strategically, as a superpower opposed to the U.S. under a bipolar balance of power, the USSR became the full-spectrum security guarantor of the Cuban state, assuming the corresponding costs and risks. Despite their status as junior partners, the Cubans assumed a very proactive role in joint interventions. In support of Moscow’s conventional and covert operations in some of the most contentious battlespaces in the so-called ‘third world,’ Cuban troops and intelligence officials participated in peripheral theaters of engagement like the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. To keep things in perspective, the Cubans fought —in these proxy wars— against enemies like South American right-wing paramilitary squads, South African mercenaries, and even regular soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces. For the Soviets, the Cuban intelligence service was just as valuable —if not more— as the East German Stasi thanks to its expertise in the clandestine implementation of ‘active measures.’ Havana (not unlike Berlin, Vienna, Geneva and Mexico City) became one of the top flashpoints of the Cold War and a nest of espionage activities.

Cuba also joined the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), a Soviet-led economic bloc which also included communist or communist-leaning states like Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, and Vietnam. Considering the underdeveloped profile of the Cuban economy in comparison to more industrially advanced members of the Soviet sphere, Cuba received economic assistance, subsidies, and oil supplies in exchange for agricultural commodities like sugar. The projection of Soviet ‘soft power’ was also strong in Cuba, despite obstacles like geographical distance and the existence of very different cultural codes that are difficult to bridge. Thousands of Cuban students —especially the best and the brightest, as well as scions of the Communist Party’s elite apparatchiks— were educated in the USSR and the Russian language was widely taught in the island. Yet, although the foreign policy of both states was mostly driven by the necessities of Richelovian Realpolitik, both Havana and Moscow shared an ideological commitment to the creed of socialist revolution. This partnership would persist until the fateful collapse of the Soviet Union.

From the US perspective, Cuba did not constitute a meaningful threat in its own right. Nevertheless, the island’s geopolitical position as a platform for the interference of an extra-regional great power was deeply troublesome for Washington. With Cuba as a launchpad, the Soviets could incite armed subversion in much of Latin America, threaten the Eastern seaboard of the United States, strike the Panama Canal, target the mouth of the Mississippi River —a vital artery for the US economy— and place the core of the US oil industry in their crosshairs. These concerns triggered Washington’s strong response in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis (known in Russian as the ‘Caribbean Crisis’). Said standoff ended up in a stalemate. Nikita Khruschev —not without the hesitance of hawkish Politburo members— agreed to abort the plans to deploy ballistic missiles in Cuba and, in exchange, the Kennedy administration withdrew Jupiter missiles from Turkey and agreed that there would be no direct US military intervention in Cuba, much to the chagrin of the CIA and the most hardline factions of the community of Cuban exiles in Florida.


The Period of Estrangement

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the disintegration of the USSR, Cuba found itself in a precarious position. Without Soviet strategic patronage and cash, Cuba was essentially on its own. In the early 90s’ —in consistence with the ideas of Francis Fukuyama and others about the ‘inexorable march of liberal democracy’— Cuba was commonly seen in much of the Western world as an outdated relic of a bygone era in which a regime change would take place sooner or later. However, more than three decades later, the Cuban government has proved to be resilient enough to withstand natural disasters, economic hardship, geopolitical tensions, intermittent domestic political unrest, and even the fallout of its own mismanagement. During the so-called ‘special period,’ the Cuban state had no choice but to diversify its economic partnerships, moderate its animosity towards the Americans and introduce mild reforms in order to fuel the inflow of hard currency through joint ventures, remittances, state-owned companies, the development of biotechnology, the export of primary goods and the encouragement of tourism. But although the Cuban economy has not imploded, its underperformance and stagnancy have become chronic. According to Harvard’s atlas of economic complexity, the Cuban economy relies mainly on the export of primary goods and the complexity of its structure has diminished dramatically since 1995.

Back then, Russia assumed an indifferent attitude towards Cuba, as it lacked the bandwidth or the resources to focus on the Caribbean. Moscow’s attention was absorbed by internal political crises, the war in Chechnya, economic turmoil, and the reorientation of its foreign policy in accordance with a pro-Western inclination. Furthermore, Russia’s disinterest was reciprocated in kind by the Cubans. Fidel Castro and his ruling were not eager to replicate policies based on the principles of Glasnost and Perestroika because they believed that such course of action would be detrimental, if not outright suicidal. The ensuing era of ‘Weimar Russia’ was no enviable model either. During this decade, relations were formally cordial but lukewarm and without much substance. In 2002, the government of Vladimir Putin decided to close the Lourdes SIGINT station as a result of budgetary constraints. The listening post —which was used to spy on the Americans— was regarded as an expensive remnant of the Cold War that had outlived its usefulness. In turn, Havana mobilized its intelligence capabilities to seek new benefactors in Latin America. Reportedly, Raul Castro was attracted by the success of China’s neo-mercantilist developmental strategy and also interested in fostering economic cooperation with Beijing. In an attempt to further hedge its bets through a policy of detente, Havana welcomed diplomatic overtures that eventually managed to restore the normalization of ties with Washington nearly a decade ago.


Back to the Future?

Despite some symbolic gestures, both Cubans and Russians were disappointed with the United States. Cuba felt disenfranchised because, despite a relatively lesser degree of mutual hostility, the restrictions implemented as a result of the US trade embargo still prevent the proliferation of bilateral economic exchanges and business connections. Far from being lifted or even loosened, these measures of economic coercion have been strengthened by both Republican and Democratic administrations. Russia’s frustration responds to the reluctance of Washington to bless the reassertion of this Eurasian state as a great power in the post-Soviet space, forge some sort of partnership, reshuffle the architecture of European security in a way that accommodates Russian interests or even negotiate the redistribution of spheres of influence. Moscow’s growing discontent with unipolarity has been outspoken since the speech delivered by President Vladimir Putin in the 2007 edition of the Munich Security Conference. Therefore, these circumstances have generated a window of opportunity to revitalize strategic bilateral ties between these states.

The rapprochement between Moscow and Havana began in the late 2000s. Motivated by pressing economic needs —in a context shaped by the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis and the destructive impact of extreme weather phenomena— and an interest in embracing strategic pluralism in an increasingly polycentric world order, Cuba welcomed Russian economic assistance. Moscow forgave 90% of the Soviet-era debt, which was likely unpayable anyway. Although the Russians are not necessarily interested in money in their dealings with Cuba, said concession can hardly be described as charitable. The details of the corresponding tradeoff have not been disclosed but, rather than a following a purely commercial interest in Cuban primary products —such as cigars, coffee, bananas, rum or sugar— the Kremlin likely seeks strategic political and economic benefits.

For example, Russian state-owned oil companies have been assessing the potential prospect of extracting offshore deposits of fossil fuels in Cuban territorial waters. Although no substantial discoveries have been found, Cuba has become a consumer of Russian crude oil, a lifeline which helps Cuba overcome worsening energy shortages. Likewise, the Russians have helped ameliorate Cuba’s poor conditions of food security through the supplies of wheat. In return, Cuba has backed Russian diplomatic positions in many controversial issues and military interventions in several corners of the so-called ‘near abroad,’ including Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Rumors about the hypothetical presence of Russian strategic bombers in Cuban airfields and the operational reactivation of the Lourdes SIGINT facility have been circulating for years. Likewise, as an operator of Soviet-made military hardware (including MiG fighters), Cuba traditionally represents an attractive consumer market for Russian weaponry and President Putin himself has threatened to arm states opposed to the collective West as an asymmetric retaliation for the increasing shipment of military materiel to Ukraine by both Washington and Brussels. Nonetheless, the need to redirect military supplies for the Russian war effort in Eastern Ukraine will likely limit the volume of potential sales in a foreseeable future.

Moreover, the position of the Russian Federation as a ‘full-spectrum commodity superpower’ suggests a predictable interest in Cuban nickel, especially considering the strategic applications of this industrial metal for the manufacture of stainless steel, superalloys, and rechargeable batteries. Access to Cuban nickel reserves under preferential conditions would give the Russians a stronger power in the global market of ferrous metals. In addition, Moscow has offered to support the upgrade of Cuban economic and industrial capabilities, especially in key sectors like nuclear energy, infrastructure, telecom, and biotechnology. After all, the relative absence of foreign companies in the Cuban economy means that Russian firms can harness a privileged opportunity to do business in the Caribbean nation with little competition. Although the Russian checkbook is not fat enough to transform Cuba into a world-class developed hub like Singapore, strengthening ties to Moscow constitutes a useful supplementary instrument to prevent overreliance on economic partners like China or Brazil for exports, imports, and investment projects. On the other hand, Cuba is a testing ground for the financial innovations of Russian economic statecraft. In December 2023, the Russian National Card Payment System launched Mir payment cards —counterparts to Western alternatives like Visa and Mastercard— in Cuba. Although the emerging rollout of these cards in Cuban touristic spots such as Havana and Varadero does not have the firepower to challenge US superiority in international finance, it indicates a common interest in experimenting with the development of parallel structures designed to bypass transnational circuits underpinned by the hegemony of the American dollar.

Nevertheless, although this rising partnership serves the national interests of both Russians and Cubans, its scope is limited. Both Moscow and Havana are far less intrepid than during the height of the Cold War. The recent symbolical presence of Russian warships in Havana must not be interpreted as a prelude for the outbreak of hostilities in the American hemisphere. Even if they wanted to, the Russians lack a blue-water navy and the logistical capabilities to carry out expeditionary warfare in the surroundings of Cuba, not to mention a war chest which could fund such a dangerous adventure. The Kremlin is no longer a bidder in the pursuit of global hegemony. For all intents and purposes, post-Cold War Russian statecraft has departed from the quixotic business of remaking the world in the image and likeness of the Soviet model. However, as a revisionist great power interested in reasserting its position in the global strategic chessboard, the likeliest interpretation is that Moscow wants to accumulate bargaining chips, generate distractions to deflect the attention of the Americans away from the post-Soviet space, and to remind Washington that Russia is a force to reckoned with even in the American hemisphere. Considering the growing presence of Russian intelligence personnel in states close to the geopolitical perimeter of American national security, another possible interest is to enlist Cuban collaboration in ‘cloak and dagger’ shenanigans conceived to instigate chaos as asymmetric payback for the Eastward expansion of NATO, the instigation of ‘color revolutions,’ and the delivery of US weapons to Ukraine. The hypothetical spectrum of these low-cost operations  might include psychological warfare and encouragement for the proliferation of irregular militant agitation. Moreover, Moscow and Havana share an interest in supporting ‘Bolivarian’ states that are hostile to US interests —such as Venezuela and Nicaragua— because they are useful to promote a favorable correlation of forces in the region. In turn, the Cubans are no longer committed to an ideological crusade to preach the gospel of Marxism throughout the Global South. Their quintessential priority is much more existential, what they care about is to gather anchors that can ensure a reasonable degree of stability and a regional balance of power that favors the survival of its regime. Moreover, this time there are little ideological coincidences. Both the Russian Federation and Cuba are illiberal states but, in the heterogeneous ideological universe of illiberal political thinking, they do not have much in common. Russia is neo-imperial multiethnic ‘securocracy’ run by former KGB spooks and technocratic cadres (Vladimir Putin himself is no admirer of the Bolsheviks and their legacy), whereas Cuba is one of the last strongholds of communism, at least nominally. Yet Cuba and Russia do not have to be fellow travelers in order to come together as bedfellows whenever both sides have something to gain.



In a nutshell, the attempt to reopen doors to reconnect Moscow and Havana must not be dismissed as Kabuki theatrics or as an empty act of ‘smoke and mirrors.’ Despite the prevalence of profound disparities, there is a substantial strategic potential in bilateral relations waiting to be harnessed, especially as both states prepare to perform confidently in an environment shaped by the realities and needs of a multipolar international system, in which geopolitical rivalries keep rising across many fronts. Such rapprochement —if its development moves forward in the following decades— can influence Latin America’s political and strategic landscape, as the region becomes a contested arena in the game of great power politics. However, existing evidence indicates that the process to rebuild this partnership will be incremental, selective and cautious. Moscow and Havana want to co-operate as partners and maybe allies in certain respects, but not to entwine their fates. The eventual progress of this association would have to overcome challenges like the persistence of mutual distrust, material issues, and a limited availability of resources. Furthermore, the waltz between Russians and Cubans does not have the critical mass to overturn the structure of polarity within the international system, at least not by itself for the time being.

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