Saturday, July 26, 2008

How the Cuba bomber flap evolved

How the Cuba bomber flap evolved

Lost in the unfolding controversy about the possible deployment of
nuclear-capable strategic bombers in Cuba is an explanation of how the
flap began. The current controversy arose with an article Monday July 21
in the Russian newspaper Izvestia, said to be close to the centers of
power in the Kremlin. What is not yet clear is how Russians came to
consider Cuba as a possible refueling site for strategic bombers. But a
Miami expert on Cuba believes the root of the controversy dates back to
a speech by then Russian president Vladimir Putin last year. Read on.

In the now famous article, Izvestia said Russia is considering
sending long-range bombers to Cuba in response to Washington's
intentions to deploy an antimissile system in eastern Europe. (The
Associated Press 1997 file photo shows a Tupolev-160 bomber during a
combat training flight in Russia).

An item on this blog by my blogging colleague Renato Perez Pizarro
quoted Izvestia as saying: "While [the Americans] deploy antimissile
systems in Poland and

the Czech Republic, our long-range strategic aircraft will be landing on

Izvestia attributed that statement to a military source and added
that talk of a deployment was ongoing, "but it's only talk."

Perez Pizarro noted in his blog item that the source Izvestia quoted
did not say whether the planes would be stationed permanently on the
island, but that a former official at the Russian Defense Ministry, Col.
Gen. Leonid Ivashov, pointed out Cuba could be used as "an auxiliary
airport for refueling," the same way Russia now uses the Cape Verde islands.

That piece in Izvestia is the one that launched the still ongoing
furor about whether Russia is planning to challenge the United States
like Moscow did with nuclear missiles during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Within hours of the Izvestia report, the Russian defense ministry
denied it and then White House spokeswoman Dana Perino minimized the
whole situation, calling Russia a partner -- not a threat. On Thursday,
the Russian Defense Ministry moved more aggressively to tamp down
speculation calling the Izvestia report a "hoax.''

But also on Thurdsday Izvestia surprised the world yet again with a
report attributed to Russian defense ministry sources as saying that
bomber crews had visited Cuba to survey for sites for possible refueling

Two Cuba experts at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban
and Cuban-American Studies, said it was possible Russia is trying to
nudge the U.S. toward the negotiating table on the anti-missile system
in Eastern Europe. But one of the experts said the report may be linked
to the Putin speech.

"It appears to me that the Russian leadership doesn't want us trying
to build that anti-missile system in its periphery and is trying to put
a little pressure on us,'' said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst on
Cuba and Latin America.

"It could be a trial balloon to scare the Americans to bring them to
table over the

anti-missile system in eastern Europe or it could be a desire of Russia
to extend its reach into several parts of the world,'' said Jaime
Suchlicki, director of UM's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

Suchlicki, who believes Venezuela could also be a refueling stop for
Russian aircraft, recalled that last year Putin ordered the resumption
of long-range patrols by strategic bombers which had ended with the
Soviet collapse.

"I have made a decision to resume regular flights of Russian
strategic aviation,'' Putin said in televised remarks Aug. 17, 2007
during joint Russian-Chinese maneuvers. "We proceed from the assumption
that our partners will view the resumption of flights of Russia's
strategic aviation with understanding.''

Suchlicki may have found the genesis of the current Cuba bomber flap.

-- Alfonso Chardy

July 25, 2008

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