With apologies to the cast and producers of the iconic 1966 film The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, the Russians are not coming: they already are back. Possibly the most important aspect of their return to the Western Hemisphere is the reopening of a massive signals intelligence (SigInt) station at Lourdes, Cuba, south of Havana. That facility can monitor a variety of U.S. military and civilian communications.
The Soviets came to Cuba in 1962, bringing some 40,000 troops and military advisors, their weapons and equipment, Il-28 Beagle light bombers, tactical nuclear weapons, and—most significant—intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles that could strike most of the continental United States. The Soviets brought a total of 134 nuclear warheads into Cuba, with additional missile warheads on a merchant ship anchored offshore.1
The resolution of the October–November 1962 Cuban missile crisis forced the Soviets to withdraw the bombers, missiles, nuclear weapons, and most of the troops. However, the Lourdes SigInt complex remained, as well as a motorized rifle brigade of almost 3,000 troops for its security. For some four decades U.S. communications were monitored at Lourdes, the largest Soviet intercept facility outside the Soviet Union.
Then–Director of Naval Intelligence Rear Admiral Thomas A. Brooks wrote in the May 1989 Proceedings:
The Soviets continue to improve the signals intelligence (SigInt) collection facility at Lourdes, Cuba. Under Soviet tutelage, Cuban collection capabilities have also improved dramatically in the past few years. Additionally, the Soviet Union continues to rely on Havana to support/supply its intelligence collection ships (AGIs), which routinely deploy along the U.S. East Coast.
Following the demise of the Soviet regime in 1991, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the troops were being withdrawn from Cuba and proposed a simultaneous removal of U.S. forces from the naval base at Guantanamo. That proposal was rejected by the Bush administration.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry issued a statement in 1992 that said, “With the disappearance of the Soviet Union . . . the existence of this military unit on our territory no longer makes sense.”2 Still, the Lourdes facility survived for another decade, finally closing in 2001.
Russian interest in the Caribbean continued, however. There were some minor ship visits to the area, with periodic appearances of AGIs. The nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy and guided-missile destroyer Admiral Chabanenko arrived in La Guaira, Venezuela, on 25 November 2008, coinciding with a visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. A combined exercise with the Venezuelan Navy took place on 1–2 December 2008. After the exercise, the Admiral Chabanenko visited Panama on 5–10 December, then Nicaragua, on 13–15 December, and sailed into Havana harbor on 19 December. (The Pyotr Velikiy continued alone to Cape Town, South Africa.)
Shortly before these visits, in September 2008, a pair of Russian Tu-160 Blackjack supersonic bombers had flown into Venezuela. Another pair of Blackjacks visited Venezuela in October 2013. This pair caused an international incident when it left, as the bombers flew from Venezuela to Nicaragua, another target of Russian influence in the area. The airplanes flew through Colombian air space without clearance. Colombia scrambled Israeli-made Kfir fighters to intercept the Blackjacks and escort them out of the area.
Russia’s support of the Venezuelan government under anti-American dictator Hugo Chavez continued after Chavez’s death in March 2013 with successor Nicolas Maduro. In return for massive investment in Venezuela— estimated at $23 billion since 2006—Russians today own 49 percent of CITGO petroleum. The company’s oil and gas give Russia financial and political leverage in the Western hemisphere.
In July 2014, the Russian and Cuban governments reached an agreement to reopen the Lourdes facility. The accord reportedly was finalized during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Havana that month. The agreement was based on Moscow forgiving some 90 percent of the $32 billion debt Cuba owed Russia. The improved relationship was cemented with Cuba’s agreement to purchase Russian-made armored vehicles and helicopters as part of an armed-forces modernization.
This flow of military equipment into the Caribbean area—alongside technicians and advisers—was complemented by the arrival of another pair of Tu-160 Blackjack bombers into Venezuela in mid-December 2018. These were accompanied by an An-12 cargo aircraft and an Il-62 passenger plane, probably carrying maintenance personnel and spare parts. From the Caracas airport the Blackjacks flew a ten-hour “patrol” over the Caribbean, at times escorted by Venezuelan Su-30MKV Flanker-C and F-16A/B Falcon fighters.
While Russian assistance to or presence in Cuba and Venezuela cannot reach the levels of the 1962 buildup, the current volatility of the Caribbean area provides increasing opportunities for Russian “adventurism,” especially in light of the migrant movements from Central America north and Venezuela’s instability. The Lourdes SigInt facility could be the key to Russian decision-making over when and where to be active.
Today’s Russian armed forces number but a fraction of their Cold War–era predecessors, but the periodic warship appearances, more-frequent AGI intelligence collection missions, and visits by government officials and the occasional strategic bombers, increase the Kremlin’s potential influence in the Americas.
In the near future, the most likely area outside Russia where Russian troops can be expected to be employed is Syria, because of the continuing civil war. (The announcement that U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Syria only enhances the chances of increased Russian presence there.) Most of the remainder of Russia’s ground forces are busy supporting the “independence” movement in Ukraine and keeping watch over the Baltic states, where U.S. weapons transfers and military presence cause concern in the Kremlin. Russian military forces also have appeared in Georgia and Moldava, and in the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, in recent years.
But arms sales and the construction of nuclear power plants are making political-economic inroads for Russia in Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, NATO member Turkey is believed to be purchasing Russian air-defense systems. The Russians are coming back to the Western Hemisphere, too, and the Putin regime is applying a variety of tools to gain political, economic, and military influence in a period of great tumult and unrest.