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Cold War redux: Russia may reopen a Soviet-era spy base in Cuba

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As relations with the US continue to deteriorate, Vladimir Putin turns to an old ally

Presidential Press and Information Office

Russia has agreed to reopen a spy base in Cuba that provided critical intelligence on the US during the Cold War, according to reports published this week. Details of the purported agreement have not been disclosed, and it's not yet clear whether the move is strategic or symbolic. But experts say the apparent rekindling of Cold War-era alliances underscores Moscow's efforts to extend its sphere of influence at a time when US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate.

On Wednesday, Russian business newspaper Kommersant reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, have agreed to reopen the Lourdes surveillance post, located about 150 miles from Florida. Putin denied the report, telling Russian journalists that the country "can meet its defense needs without this component," though Reuters later corroborated Kommersant, citing a Russian security source.

Keeping tabs on a "potential enemy"

The Lourdes base was closed in 2001, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. But Kommersant, citing unnamed Russian security sources, said the country's influx of oil and gas revenue has allowed it to restart operations. Chilled relations with the US reportedly spurred the decision as well, with the paper saying that officials see Lourdes as a way for Russia to keep tabs on a "potential enemy."

The decision comes at a time of heightened diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Washington, which are on opposing sides of the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Eastern Ukraine. The standoff between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists garnered fresh international attention following yesterday's crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, with each side blaming the other for what appears to have been a missile attack on the passenger jet. Earlier this week, the US announced a new round of tough economic sanctions against Russia, targeting major banks and oil companies.

The Lourdes agreement was reportedly brokered in principle last week, when Putin visited Cuba as part of a six-day swing through Latin America. While in Havana, Putin announced that Russia would help its longtime ally conduct offshore oil exploration, and that it would re-invest $3.5 billion of Cuban debt in development projects. The Kremlin had earlier agreed to forgive 90 percent of Cuba's Soviet-era debts, or nearly $32 billion.

"there's a sense that relations with the Western world are inevitably going to deteriorate."

As relations with the US and the European Union have soured, Putin has sought to strengthen ties with China, India, and other countries as part of an attempt to reassert Russia's position as a global power. During his tour through Latin America, the Russian president also secured deals to establish satellite navigation stations in Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba.

"I think post-Ukraine, there's a sense that relations with the Western world are inevitably going to deteriorate, or have deteriorated already," says Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior analyst and Russia expert at CNA, a nonprofit research organization in the US. "And so they're looking to rebuild or build new alliances with countries that are less Europe-centric."

Lourdes opened in 1967, five years after the Cuban missile crisis nearly sparked nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. The 28-square-mile site is home to a large collection of satellite dishes and antennas, which Soviet and Cuban agents used to intercept telephone and radio communications. At its apex, it housed up to 3,000 military and intelligence officers, and had up to 1,500 personnel at the time of its closing in 2001. In 1993, then-Defense Minister Raúl Castro claimed that 75 percent of all intelligence gathered on the US came through Lourdes.

Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War expert at Aberystwyth University in the UK, said in an email that Castro's claims may have been "an exaggeration," though he acknowledges that Lourdes played a critical role in Soviet intelligence gathering.

"not only is Russia back in the Western hemisphere, it is back in style, antennas and all."

"It is fair to say that it was one of the largest Soviet signal intelligence facilities, and certainly the best positioned one," Radchenko said. "Since the 1960s, Lourdes provided the Soviets with information on US space launches, and allowed monitoring of government and commercial communications."

It's not clear how the equipment at Lourdes could be used today, considering the technological advancements made since it was closed, but there appears to be enthusiasm among Russian officials. In its report, Kommersant quoted one unnamed security official as saying: "I can just say one thing — finally!"

"It's no secret that when we left [Lourdes] in 2001, we expected to launch a fleet of radio electronic surveillance satellites," Viktor Mukarovsky, a retired colonel, told the New York Times this week. "But we never found the money, and -— speaking softly — our satellite surveillance capabilities are still modest."

The site holds symbolic significance, as well. Since beginning his third presidential term in 2012, Putin has spoken at length about bringing "glory" back to Russia, and his rhetoric has grown increasingly anti-American in recent months.

"In this case, it's the symbolism and the timing that mattered," Radchenko said. "One cannot exclude the possibility of a deliberate leak to Kommersant as a kind of snub to the United States: not only is Russia back in the Western Hemisphere, it is back in style, antennas and all."