Once More Into the Caribbean: Cuba Between Russia and America

As American-Russian relations continue to deteriorate, Washington has been working to normalize relations with Cuba. Diplomatic ties between the two nations have been cut since 1961, though following President Barrack Obama’s orders on December 17, 2014, things have begun improving. Cuba has been a steady ally of Moscow, both during the Soviet Union and after the end of the Cold War.

Since Obama has made this announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Deputy Foreign Minister Vassily Nebenzya and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov have all had nothing but positive things to say about the move to normalize relations between Cuba and the US. Lavrov stated that the Cuban Foreign Ministry has stressed that the normalization of Cuban-American relations will not affect the current relationship between Havana and Moscow.

So far, America has agreed to the preconditions set by Cuba to push forward normalization, including easing trade restrictions, resolving issues surrounding financial services to the Cuban Interests Section (Cuban diplomatic mission in DC under the protection of Switzerland but not afforded the same rights as an embassy), and removing the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The two nations expect to reopen embassies in their respective capitals on July 20, 2015, according to Cuban Foreign Affairs.

All levels of Russian government seem to be in agreement that the normalization of Cuban-American relations is a positive thing and will not negatively impact Russian-Cuban relations. However, the one recurring theme in Russia’s releases on the topic is that Moscow hopes that America moving forward in normalizing relations now is not only in the pursuit of its own interests, but also of its partners, and without any indirect or direct malice towards other nations.

At this time, all that has happened is that both Havana and DC will be seeing an embassy from the other being established, likely by the end of July. Many of the economic restrictions remain in place by the United States, which remain an obstacle to true normalization. Congress has repeatedly been called upon by President Obama to lift the embargo, and has been resistant to the idea.

Looking at this in purely bilateral terms, perhaps Moscow is right to see little wrong as anything that benefits Cuba will also benefit Moscow. However, as the relationship between Moscow and Washington has deteriorated, America has asked longtime friends of the Kremlin to curtail elements of their relations with Russia, particularly as they relate to Russian force projection.

At this point, the question is simple: who cares? Moscow has stated they see nothing wrong with this and Cuba has said this will not impact relations with Russia. If Congress had already lifted the embargo, perhaps that would be an accurate assessment. However, they have yet to do so, which, given current relations between Moscow and DC, could potentially be used as a bargaining chip, especially as Russian vessels have used Cuban ports with some frequency.

In Asia, the US State Department has asked Vietnam to not allow Russian long-range bombers to be refueled from a former US base in Cam Rahn Bay, following statements from General Vincent Brooks, commander of the US Army in the Pacific, that Russian bombers had conducted “provocative flights” near Guam. Much like in the case of Cuba, relations with Moscow have remained strong since the Cold War, whereas they have only recently begun improving with Washington. Bearing this in mind, it may be prudent for Moscow to consider the possibility that Washington, if not looking to completely shut them out, is positioning itself as another, perhaps more attractive option. American Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, has quite poignantly pointed out that while it is understandable to look to historic partners for security concerns, the US has a lot to offer Vietnamese short, medium and long-term security. The only real hindrance remaining in Vietnamese-American defence relations is an American embargo on the sale of lethal arms, however restrictions have begun being lifted, and relations as a whole between the two nations have been steadily improving.

While not a very subtle option, it is feasible that Washington could attach conditions hindering Russian access to Vietnamese bases to fully repealing the embargo. A precondition like this can also be applied to lifting the Cuban embargo as American politicians have expressed concerns about trusting Havana. Cuba willingly doing something like curbing Russian access to its military installations would likely go a long way towards convincing Congress they are trustworthy.

However, Russia has also begun courting leaders in South America to supply Russian markets in an effort to circumvent sanctions as well as allow Russian vessels and planes to use their bases for resupply. If successful, Russia would be able to exploit an underfunded American Southern Command. This would allow Russian vessels and aircraft to resupply during long-range patrols into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. While not as close to the United States as Cuba, access to South American bases would provide exceptional reach and the ability to patrol near American borders in a way similarly enjoyed by the American military at Russia’s borders as the result of NATO bases.

Moscow may feel secure and unthreatened by American inroads into Cuba and even Vietnam due to longstanding friendships. However, this is perhaps a bit shortsighted and the Kremlin, at least behind closed doors, should consider the possible negative outcomes of increasingly strong relations between its friends and the United States. Likewise, the United States should consider increasing the resources available to Southern Command as relations with Cuba progress, as an increased Russian presence in their area of operation is likely.

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