Message from Moscow

A key Russian official is in Havana this week to discuss energy cooperation with Raul Castro. But there’s another reason for the deputy prime minister’s visit: sending a shot across Washington’s bow.

A key Russian official arrived in Havana on Wednesday, and not just to enjoy a cigar in the Caribbean sun. Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, one of Vladimir Putin's closest advisors, flew in with a substantive business agenda. Energy cooperation between Cuba and her former cold-war patron is the official reason for Sechin's trip. But the Kremlin's choice of emissary and its timing may mean that it seeks to drive home a warning to Washington: U.S. pressure on Russia's periphery can be answered in a similar manner.

Sechin's visit ostensibly concerns development of Cuban oil fields by government-controlled Zarubezhneft and refinery infrastructure by Lukoil, a private Russian oil company. There is no reason to doubt the stated purpose of Sechin's visit-Russia and its oil companies are ambitious players in the global energy market. The deputy prime minister himself is also chairman of Rosneft, the state oil giant.

It seems natural, therefore, for Moscow to use its old ties with Fidel's regime to build an energy partnership with the Cubans. Havana possesses between 5 and 10 billion barrels of oil in offshore fields, waiting to be exploited. Obviously Russia seeks an advantageous commercial position-India, China and Brazil are already interested in developing Cuba's energy potential. Yet there are also strategic reasons for sending Sechin: the Kremlin wants to deliver a message to the United States.

During the mid-1980s, Sechin worked as an interpreter in Mozambique and Angola, both battlefields of the cold war. While Vladimir Putin was serving as a KGB officer in East Germany, Sechin was likely doing similar work in Africa. It was here that he would probably have formed relationships with Cuban military "advisors" and military and intelligence personnel, who often fought on the front lines against U.S.-backed proxy forces. He is likely calling upon them now.

Today, Sechin is a force to be reckoned with in Kremlin politics and head of the powerful silovik clan. This group, largely consisting of security-apparatus veterans who tend to hold nationalist, anti-Western foreign-policy views, has been accused of engineering oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky's downfall and the breakup of the once-massive Yukos oil enterprise, among other things.

If Sechin's past and his position as Putin's right-hand man can't concentrate Washington's attention, perhaps recent events can. Only last week, Russian sources hinted at the possibility of stationing strategic bombers on bases in Cuba. Others speculated that a signals-intelligence facility in Cuba that Putin ordered mothballed in 2001 would be reopened. Meanwhile, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez visited Moscow to expand energy cooperation and buy Russian arms.

How likely is a Russian strategic presence in Cuba? Right now, Moscow's projects in Latin America are meant as signals rather than concrete first steps. While flush with cash, Russia is not interested in revisiting Brezhnev-style subsidization of client states. Cuba is still saddled with a Soviet-era debt to Russia of $166 million, which Moscow set about restructuring in 2006. Russian business acumen has improved tremendously since the Communist era, and the Kremlin is interested in turning a profit, not in repeating the Politburo's mistakes. Russian energy ventures are not simply a cover for the deployment of air bases on the island.

Cuba is unlikely to again function as Russia's aircraft carrier. Such an arrangement would cross a "red line," as U.S. Air Force General Norton Schwartz stated in congressional hearings last week. Russian nuclear bombers in Cuba would present a serious threat-and demand a resolute U.S. response to make clear to Moscow that such actions would be unwise.

Still, it is possible that Cuba might serve as a refueling point for the Russian air force, which is again conducting long-range bomber patrols on a regular basis. Even more likely is increased intelligence cooperation between Cuba and Russia. Former FSB director and current secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev is accompanying Sechin to Havana, underscoring Russian resolve in this effort. The two nations' interests are especially well-aligned in this sphere, as the United States is their primary target for espionage. 

An upswing in Russian activity in Latin America is not a major strategic initiative in itself, but rather an unsubtle signal to U.S. policy makers. Washington has been consistent in its support for what Moscow views as anti-Russian tendencies in the former Soviet space. The two most prominent cases, Georgia and Ukraine, have U.S. backing for NATO membership. Construction of anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe without meaningful Russian consultation only heightens Kremlin fears of strategic vulnerability, whether Washington proclaims itself a "partner" or not.

Igor Sechin's visit to Cuba is best viewed through a geopolitical prism. Russia may not be the Soviet superpower of days past, but its resurgence cannot be discounted. Moscow would like to generate a reevaluation of U.S. priorities for Eurasia, and it is hoping to get its message across in the New World. If the United States insists on what the Kremlin views as interference in Russia's sphere of vital interests, it can expect an analogous reaction uncomfortably close to U.S. shores.


Mark Hackard is the assistant director of The Nixon Center.