A Russian Interest in Reopening the Lourdes SIGINT Station?

BY ALEXANDER OSADTA

In the early 1960s, space age had just begun and technology development made its first steps. The Soviet Union wanted to be the first to take advantage of these technological advancements. With the consent and goodwill of its new Cuban allies, the Soviet Union began to install its first electronic intelligence gathering center in Latin America.

Cuba was the only ally that offered an affordable price for the Soviet Union to station a military base on its territory, especially one in such close proximity to the US coast. This partnership gave American military officials headaches for decades!

The most well-known station was the Lourdes SIGINT (signals intelligence) Station. The station was located just south of Havana in a suburb called Lourdes, which is where its name originates. The station was among the most advanced intelligence systems because it allowed the Soviet Union to read most electronic interceptions (telephone calls, faxes, computer communication, NASA launches, etc.) of the US.

So thanks to the station’s capacity, the Soviet Union managed to gather more than 85 percent of its electronic intelligence from abroad. In the tensest periods of the Cold War, the station functioned with a staff of approximately 1500-3000 officers and technicians who were members of GRU, KGB, DGI, etc.

The situation maintained its activity for about 10 years. However, in 2001, due to costly maintenance and political entanglement with President Bush, Russia decided to shut down Lourdes Station with no regard to the financial backlash on its ally, Cuba. Despite the closing of the station, Russia and Cuba continued their humanitarian, agricultural, and even military partnership, but of course, on a much smaller scale than during the Soviet Union era.

Fast forward to present time, with the Ukrainian Crisis, and deployment of the US missile defense system in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia is becoming increasingly defiant towards the policy and actions of NATO and seeks somehow to find an alternative solution that will allow them to demonstrate and maintain their superpower status.

The best way for Russia to maintain that power was to rebuild its partnership with Cuba, one similar to that of the Soviet era. But to redevelop that partnership, Russia had to assess its current predicament. Russian energy companies are increasingly active in Cuba. For example Inter Rao company is planning to build four new power-generating units in Cuba for the next 9 years[1], and Zarubezhneft started drilling on the Cuban oil field Boca de Jaruco.[2] In the military field, no activity would gain more expert input (policy experts, global experts, foreign policy experts) than the reopening of the Lourdes SIGINT Station. Therefore, there is potential for Russia to reopen the station to prove and strengthen its superpower status.

Conflicting Official Statements

According to Kremlin.ru, on July 17 2014,[3] at the end of his visit from Latin America, Putin was asked by reporters about the matter: “There were reports according to which we would return to Lourdes. Is it true?”

With confidence, Putin denied the rumors, saying: “It is not true, we have not discussed this issue” after which, the journalist, dissatisfied with the response, said: “Thank you, but about Lourdes – we are sorry.”

Putin claimed again his position arguing that “We are able to meet the challenges in the field … even without this component,” pointing out once again that “We have no plans to restore its functioning.

According to the news agency, Lenta.ru, on March 25 2016,[4] a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affair of Russia, Alexander Shchetinin, who is stationed in Latin America, denied the information about the reopening of the station. According to Shchetinin, “the base was closed, and its recovery is not expected.” Also, according to an interview that Shchetinin gave to the news agency, RIA Novosti, on October 26 2015, he pointed out that “we have no plans to open military bases in Cuba.”[5]

For reasons of propaganda, or perhaps seriously, the statements of other officials from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence were different. For example, on May 8 2015, Russia Today quoted senior member of the State Duma Security Committee, Dmitry Gorovtsov: “I think that in the nearest future we can restore the radio intelligence base in Lourdes that had been used first by the USSR and then by the Russian Federation.[6]

Also, on July 17 2014, Kommersant newspaper said, “Russia began negotiations with Cuba on this issue a few years ago, but they intensified sharply at the beginning of 2014.”[7] According to the same source, within a few months, Russia’s and Cuba’s army conducted a series of meetings in which the parties were able to resolve all issues related to this topic. Sources say, during Vladimir Putin’s visit – in Havana on July 11 2014, all negotiations on this matter were completed, leaving us to speculate that the reopening of the Lourdes SIGINT Station is being discussed among controlling factions.

Other sources of Kommersant said that: “Russia and Cuba have agreed, in principle to resume the use of the Station in Lourdes.”[8] This information has been confirmed by several official sources of the magazine. According to sources, “The completion of the agreement was made during the visit of President Vladimir Putin in Havana last Friday.”

Conclusion

Other than speculation, there is no clear indication that the station will be reopened. But we have to consider the intricacy of this situation. The station was not closed due to a unilateral decision made by Moscow, but rather a political decision made under pressure from former president Bush Jr. In order to stay in the good grace of the US Congress, Russia reluctantly accepted the strict conditions of the “Forgiveness and Friendship” bill. Under these conditions, any confirmation of reopening the station will be an act of negligence against that bill.  This is why reopening the station is much more difficult than it seems. If Russia decides to reopen the station , they will have to prepare for the deterioration of the relationship with the US.

From another perspective, given Russia’s unwillingness to accept NATO’s actions in Eastern Europe, we can assume that the Russians have ample reason to be interested in intensifying military cooperation with Cuba, despite Russia’s prioritization of building energy cooperation with Cuba. But, considering that Russia forgave Cuba’s debt of 30 billion, it may be  that Cuba will have to return the favor. It is unlikely that Russia forgave such a large debt just on the principles of camaraderie; surely there has to been some underlining military or economic strategy at play here.

Whether it is the reopening of the Lourdes Station, or any other other military base, it is clear that in the future we will possibly see new developments in the Russia-Cuba relationship.

Endnotes

[1]              http://sputniknews.com/latam/20151019/1028777324/cuba-construction-russia-power.html

[2]             http://www.rbc.ru/economics/26/08/2013/871656.shtml

[3]             http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/46236

[4]             https://lenta.ru/news/2016/03/25/lurdes/

[5]             http://ria.ru/interview/20151026/1308235063.html

[6]             https://www.rt.com/politics/256829-russia-cuba-lourdes-base/

[7]             https://tvrain.ru/news/rossija_vernet_sebe_tsentr_radioperehvata_na_kube-372477/

[8]             http://kommersant.ru/doc/2525998

Image source: wikimedia.org

About the Author 

Alexander Osadta holds an M.A. in Administrative Sciences with a focus on Administrative reforms on Former Soviet countries from University of Craiova. His research is focused on Russia and East-European Studies.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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