CubaBrief: The Russian reset 10 years later, its expanded military role in Latin America, and the possibility of a new crisis

Professor Jaime Suchlicki and the Cuban Studies Institute are sharing an important report by Soviet-born Canadian Professional Engineer, Paulina Zelitsky on the expansion of the Russian military in Cuba. Zelitsky, was a member of a design and construction team of a secret Soviet submarine base installation in Jagua Bay, Cienfuegos, Cuba, which operated for over 20 years during the Cold War. She defected in 1971, and now says the Russians are rebuilding their nuclear submarine base in Cuba.

This is capping a decades long march by the Russians through Latin America. The Bush, Obama, and now the Trump Administrations have all sought improved relations with Russia, only to be disappointed. The last re-set begun in the early days of the Obama Administration should be instructive.

On March 6, 2009 Secretary Hillary Clinton in Geneva, Switzerland announced the “Russian reset” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov but things didn’t go as expected as Time Magazine’s Simon Shuster reported a year later when there were already signs that things were going in the wrong direction:

Last March, she had the honor of starting Obama’s charm offensive by presenting her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with a little red button. It was supposed to have the Russian word for reset on it and was meant as a harmless bit of fun. But thanks to a spelling mistake somewhere in the State Department (presumably the Gimmicks Directorate), Lavrov had to explain that the button actually said overload. It caused some awkward laughter.

In September of 2009 the Obama Administration announced that they “no longer planned to move forward” with the missile shield and scrapped it, but pursued an alternative scaled down version that still bothered the Russians who viewed the President as weak.

Obama shaking hands with Hugo Chavez and Maduro in the background (2009)

Obama shaking hands with Hugo Chavez and Maduro in the background (2009)

In October 2010 Hugo Chavez visited Moscow and an agreement was announced between the two regimes that Russia would build Venezuela’s first nuclear power plant.

In October 2011 the Russians lent Hugo Chavez in Venezuela four billion dollars to purchase Russian weapons. ” Venezuela became the largest importer of Russian arms for ground forces in 2011,” the Moscow based Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade reported in December 2011.

On March 26, 2012 President Obama was caught on a hot mike telling then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” President Medvedev replied, “I understand. I transmit this (inaudible) to Vladimir.” President Obama went on to win re-election.

By 2014 Vladimir Putin responded to President Obama’s promise of “flexibility” by militarily taking part of Ukraine, backing Assad in Syria, and floating the idea of opening Russian military bases in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Russian funding for weaponry in Nicaragua returned in 2014.

Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov at the port in Havana, January 20, 2015. (Reuters)

Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov at the port in Havana, January 20, 2015. (Reuters)

Russian Navy’s intelligence collection ship, the Viktor Leonov, docked in Havana just a day before the arrival of the American delegation to negotiate the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States in January 2015. This was a month after President Obama and Dictator Castro had announced their intentions to resume diplomatic relations. The Russian warship was docked in a pier usually reserved for cruise ships to send a high profile message.

The Russian presence in the Americas was not limited to Cuba and Venezuela.

Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua “purchased” 50 new T-72B1 battle tanks at a cost of 80 million dollars in 2016 that attracted international media attention. ( It was learned later that the tanks had been donated by Moscow.) Armando Chaguaceda’s 2019 article in Global Americans titled “Russia and Nicaragua: Progress in bilateral cooperation” explained the strategic significance of these “donations.”

In 2016 it was also confirmed that, since 2013, Nicaragua had ordered four Project 14310 Mirazh patrol boats, two Project 1241.8 Molnia2 missile boats and four Yak-130 planes from Moscow. The donation of Russian equipment does come with a non-monetary price: the access allowed by Managua to Nicaraguan ports for the establishment, in 2017, of a Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). Though the station was declared to be for “purely civil ends,” it has the capability of performing electronic intelligence and cyber operations. 

Now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic Russian misinformation campaigns have targeted the United States in an effort to deflect blame from their Communist Chinese allies.

It is within this current context that Western Democracies need to wake up to the aggressive posture of the Russians on the world scene, and regional bad actors. The United States should pay closer attention to what is happening ninety miles off its shores. Paulina Zelitsky, in her article below, asks the provocative question is ” a new missile crisis in the making?”

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The Cuban Studies Institute Publications


Note: The following article highlights Russian actions in Cuba that may have major implications for U.S.-Russian relations and for Cuba.  If Putin is willing now to challenge U.S. security interests in the U.S. own backyard, it may represent a threat perhaps as dangerous as Khrushchev surreptitious introduction of nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962.  Russian submarines now carrying nuclear missiles, and Russian missiles in the ocean floor in waters on the coast of  Cuba represent a major threat to the U.S. and a Russian strategic gamble that requires a U.S. response.   

                         Jaime Suchlicki
Cuban Studies Institute



                                                                                                                                 By Paulina Zelitsky*

The main Spy Ship Vischego Klassa of the Russian Navy returned to Havana on March 3, 2020, once again, in secret and in an unsafe manner, that is not turning on transmitter to send signals over AIS (Automatic Identification System) or turning on lights, or answering inquiries from other ships to avoid collision in high-traffic areas.[1]

The current arrival of AGI Victor Leonov in Havana surprisingly did not produce any notice or reaction from the Western or even Russian press this time. They chose not to notice this fact (except Cubanet), despite the initial tweet with the picture of this ship on March 4, 2020, by Patrick Oppmann correspondent of CNN in Cuba. I have the expert confirmation that Patrick is right, but CNN decided not to mention this news item. Such turning of blind eyes on the current visit to Cuba of AGI Victor Leonov is surprising, for it is highly unlikely that the Russian navy drops secretly every few weeks to Cuba because they love Cuban beaches. Previously it always provoked a lot of media noise.

During her previous Cuban visit in December 16,17, and 18 of 2019, AGI Victor Leonov provoked numerous protests from passing vessels and the US Coast Guard with some experts suggesting that it is gathering US military information from US naval bases, digital signatures of US subs, radars and sensors, information from undersea cables networks and even the surveillance of US coastline for “alleged Kanyon targeting”.[2]

At the same time, her visits this past December and now in March are likely required for working with their new Russian Intelligence Gathering Base/GLONASS, currently operating just 90 miles off the US coast. This new modernized Intelligence Gathering SIGINT/GLONASS has replaced the previous outdated Soviet Spy SIGINT center in Lourdes. Putin, Medvedev, and Borisov officially personally announced the commencement of its operations in Cuba last October; not a single Western media noticed their announcements either.[3]

On February 22, 2020, the head of Russian Navy Admiral Nikolay Evmenov, returned to Moscow from 6 days working visit of Cuban ports and Cuban Navy enterprises on the invitation of Raul Castro and Miguel Diaz-Canel in response to their own working visits to Moscow earlier in 2019. Only the Russian and the Cuban media reported the visit of Russian Navy Admiral Nikolay Evmenov to Cuba in Russian and Spanish languages.[4]

The Russian official press and “so-called independent” Russian TV media reported that the reason for such a long working visit (6 days) of the Head of Russian Navy was that Cuba agreed, once again, to rebuild a Russian submarine nuclear base in Cuba, a facility being built in Jagua Bay, Cienfuegos.

The Russian media describes the deal for the return of the Russian navy base in Cuba is made at the behest of the Cuban state. To that end, Russia promised to invest over 1 billion Euros into rebuilding and modernizing Cuban harbor facilities (in Jagua Bay?) to service Russian navy submarines and the Cuban navy military industry. Also, the Russian media asserted that the Cuban civil residents of the Bay of Jagua and coastal areas of Cienfuegos will be relocated from the coastal areas. One billion Euros would be their largest ever investment into militarizing Cuba.

Being aware of the current dismal socio-economic situation of ordinary Russians, because the Russian state cannot pay even for the medical services of Russian veterans and pensioners, I decided to check this claim and found the confirmation in Cuban media of 2019 made upon return of Raul Castro and Miguel Diaz-Canel from Moscow. The Cuban government announced to the residents in the area of Bay of Jagua and Cienfuegos their imminent relocation to the interior of Cuba for climatic reasons.[5]

In conclusion, the Russian Navy announced their return to providing a base in Cuba for Russian submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, as well as for the Russian navy surface fleet, equipped as well with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. According to Putin, who only recently publicly acknowledged the operation of the Soviet navy base for submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles in Cienfuegos from 1969 to 1992, the current Russian base should be similar to Tartus – a Russian navy base in Syria.

These new developments are in addition to the even more dangerous Russian technology: SKIF – Russian nuclear-tipped cruise missiles located on the ocean floor in the offshore of Cuban territorial waters. These missiles are controlled remotely from the already mentioned above brand-new Russian SIGINT/GLONASS center, which Russian V-President Dmitry Medvedev personally officially opened and announced as functional in Cuba on October 4, 2019.

Most curious is that not a single source in English or any western media mentioned this scandalous event. I suspect that Russia is back dancing their Third Waltz of the Cuban crisis, just what Putin announced they will do. The first was The Caribbean crisis in 1962, the second started in 1969, which I described in my memoir, and the third Russian Waltz has started now. The operation of this navy base in Jagua Bay in Cienfuegos I described in my memoir “The Sea is Only Knee Deep” available on Amazon.[6]

The West, once again, does not want to know about it. Russia surrounds and threatens the US with nuclear cruise missiles and satellite/subsea cable surveillance, and the US and Canada do not want to know or to notice it. I wonder if they simply do not know what to do about it and have no means to deal with it. Russian cruise missiles are not experimental technology as the alleged, very expensive Kanyon is. Russian cruise missiles shot from air, land, surface ships, submarines and the seafloor have been in operation for the last 20 years.[7]

All these military maneuvers by Russia, 90 miles off the American east coast, are a not-so-subtle message to the U.S.: “We are very dangerous. Stay out of our hair, stay out of Ukraine”. The same message was delivered during the previous two Cuban crises. 1st in 1962, 2nd in 1969 and now 3rd in 2020.[8]











Russian Press about the visit of Admiral Evmenov and Putin’s declarations:  (INTERFAX military news)   (Free Press)  (Nezavisimaya Gazeta) (TASS)


Russian TV:   (24News plus)  (News Today)   (Honest News)

*Paulina Zelitsky is a Soviet-born Canadian Professional Engineer with international experience in security, transportation and energy sectors. During 1968-71, she was a member of a design and construction team of a secret Soviet submarine base installation in Jagua Bay, Cienfuegos, Cuba, which operated for over 20 years. She defected to Canada in 1971. The dramatic story is detailed in her memoir “The Sea is Only Knee Deep”.