Russia to Dismantle Spy Facility in Cuba
Cold War Base Strained U.S. Relations
By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
MOSCOW, Oct. 17 -- President Vladimir Putin announced today that Russia
will close its major eavesdropping center in Cuba, a significant concession
United States that will save the cash-strapped Russian military $200 million a year.
In withdrawing from the Lourdes base, Putin is putting to rest one of
the major relics of the Cold War still in operation in Cuba. The base,
built by the Soviet Union in
1964, continues to house an estimated 1,500 military personnel, and its role as a significant electronic intelligence center has been a major point of contention with the
United States in recent years.
Congress passed a bill last year seeking to prevent the United States
from rescheduling hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian debt unless
Lourdes were closed.
At the time, Russia insisted that it needed to gather intelligence from the base to ensure U.S. compliance with international arms control treaties.
Putin visited Lourdes in December, meeting with President Fidel Castro,
hailing the importance of the spy center and telling those stationed there
that "your work is
not in vain. Its results are being used. Not only the military but the political leadership of the country need them, especially at the moment when Russia is rising to its
All of this made Putin's about-face today particularly striking, offering
a vivid illustration of how Russian-U.S. relations have been reshaped since
the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks in ways that would have seemed unlikely a few months ago.
President Bush welcomed the announcement, calling it another indication
the Cold War was over. "President Putin understands that Russia and America
longer adversaries; we do not judge our successes by how much it complicates life for the other country. Instead, both nations are taking down relics of the Cold
War and building a new, cooperative and transparent relationship for the 21st century," he said in Sacramento, en route to an economic summit in China.
Putin announced the withdrawal at a meeting with top military officials
at the same time he vowed to step up defense spending in response to the
new U.S.-led war in
Central Asia, near Russia's southern borders. Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian armed forces general staff, said the Russian withdrawal from Cuba would
save at least $200 million a year. "For that $200 million," Kvashnin said, "we can buy and launch 20 communications and intelligence reconnaissance satellites, as well
as purchase about 100 of the most up-to-date radars."
Putin also restated plans to end the Russian presence at another former Soviet base, in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay, by Jan. 1.
"This is a very big and very difficult decision given what a unique
role Lourdes plays for Russia as an electronic reconnaissance and eavesdropping
Alexander Pikayev, an expert on the Russian military at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "President Putin clearly wants to capitalize on the quick improvement in
relations between the United States and Russia since Sept. 11."
While sudden, the pullout from Cuba was not entirely unexpected. In
August, the Russian newspaper Novye Izvestia reported that the Russian
already begun, a decision the paper said was made due to the spying center's high cost, declining significance and negative impact on relations with the United States.
It said that Putin made the decision when Castro refused to cancel rental charges for the base as partial payment for Cuban debts to Moscow.
"We owed money to the USSR, not to Russia," Castro reportedly said.
Staff writer Mike Allen in Sacramento contributed to this report.