Russia’s rekindled interest in Cuba raises questions about the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions

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Cuban citizens wait for transportation next to Havana’s Capitolio. A Russian state enterprise is considering bids to restore the building’s gold dome. Photo by Matias J. Ocner.

Russia threw a lifeline to Cuba on May 10 by sending an oil tanker with nearly 250,000 barrels of refined products to the island. The move was vital to offset slashed oil deliveries from Venezuela, which have forced Cuba to ration electricity and fuel.

The May delivery is expected to be the first of many from Russia. Rosneft, a Russian state-owned oil company, announced May 3 that it will deliver 250,000 tons of oil and diesel to Cuba as part of a contract with state enterprise Cubametals. Little is known about the terms of the contract, but some experts estimate it to be worth $100 million.

The heavily sanctioned Russian economy, which contracted by 0.6 percent in 2016, is in no shape to offer Cuba energy deals that are as favorable as the oil deliveries from Venezuela. Russia also appears to be skeptical of Cuba’s ability to fund continued oil deliveries.

“If financial resources are found, the companies will deliver. It’s not charity,” Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told the state-run TASS news agency about oil deliveries to Cuba.

But the shipments are just one of several indicators that Russia is keen on expanding ties with its Cold War ally.

State-owned Russian Railroads announced it may sign a $2 billion contract to upgrade more than 1,000 kilometers of Cuban rail tracks by the end of the year. A Russian state-owned enterprise is also accepting bids to restore the gold dome of Havana’s El Capitolio—a project that will take at most $354,000 out of Russia’s federal budget. But perhaps most importantly, Russia agreed in 2014 to waive a whopping 90 percent of Cuba’s outstanding $32 billion in Soviet-era debt.

Russia’s renewed interest in Cuba has raised questions, but few answers, about what exactly the Kremlin hopes to gain from engaging the cash-strapped island.

“I think Russia’s overtures, and more importantly the press coverage, is timed to coincide with the White House’s anticipated reversal of the Obama administration’s rapprochement efforts,” said Brian Fonseca, director of Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy. “Russia’s contemporary engagement in Latin America appears to be very opportunistic and it is likely attempting to capitalize on any adverse sentiment towards the U.S. in the aftermath of policy changes toward Cuba.”

On the security front, Russia signed a deal in December to modernize Cuba’s defense industry through 2020. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov also spoke to the national parliament last year about plans to reopen a military base in Cuba that Moscow closed in 2002.

“A military base would do little for Russia beyond rouse the U.S., which could be perceived as a very dangerous move with the Trump administration,” Fonseca said. “The potential costs far outweigh the potential benefits.”

Russia’s exact motivations for expanding ties with the Cuban military are unclear, but it has led to concerns in Washington that the two countries intend to renew their Cold War-era relationship.

In April, more than a dozen retired U.S. military officials sent a letter to the White House urging it to continue the Obama administration’s Cuba opening for national security reasons. “The Cold War might not be back,” part of the letter said, “but Cuba has returned as a national security battleground as Russia and China increasingly engage with Havana and seek influence on an island less than 100 miles from the U.S. mainland.”

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  1. Daily Briefing - June 9, 2017 - Cuba Trade Magazine - June 9, 2017

    […] From Russia. With love?: Russia is once again shipping oil to Cuba and government officials have discussed reopening a military base on the island. Those actions have raised questions, but few answers, about the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions. Could those actions be timed to coincide with a potential reversal of the Obama administration’s Cuba opening? (Cuba Trade Magazine) […]

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