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Opinion: Columnists

As President Obama dithers, Russia returns to the Americas

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,Russia,Vladimir Putin,Cuba,Foreign Policy

During a visit to Cuba two weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly reached an agreement to reopen the huge Russian spy base in Lourdes, on the west side of the island nation.

The Lourdes base is south of Havana and about 155 miles from the U.S. During the Cold War, the enormous base - about 28 square miles -- was the home to thousands of Russian military and intelligence-gathering personnel. In about 2001, it was closed apparently because it cost too much to rent from the Cubans. Now, with oil and gas revenues propping up Putin's neo-Soviet autocracy, the Russians are able to afford a lot more than they could 20 years ago.

Lourdes is supposed to be housing one or more Glonass ground stations. Glonass is a Russian GPS satellite system and it requires, like all such systems, ground-based calibration. Because it may hide other capabilities, such as secure communications, Glonass isn’t “glasnost” – roughly “transparency” – which was one of the final unmet promises from the Soviet regime. But Putin’s motivation for reopening Lourdes – which will be an expensive operation – aren’t very obvious.

The reality - from a military and technological viewpoint - is that Russia doesn't need Lourdes. Espionage can be conducted from Russia and other nations. So can cyberwar. Russian cyberwarriors, who have proven themselves quite capable in attacks against Georgia, Estonia and Ukraine, can mount attacks on U.S. military, defense and industry computer networks from anywhere. They are highly active in doing so, but there's no benefit to them in operating from Cuba that they don't already have.

If the reasons aren't technological, military or intelligence related, then they have to be political. By reopening Lourdes, Putin is again putting a sharp stick in President Obama's eye. He's grabbing at the prestige and influence in Central and South America that Russia lost when the Soviet Union ended its operations in Cuba and then fell apart entirely.

What Putin seeks is a Cuban base for Russian efforts to do the same thing that they’re doing in Eastern Europe. Reopening Lourdes restores Cuba as a primary base for Russian destabilization of Mexico as well as Central and South America. At the end of the Cold War, that danger was limited severely by the fact that the Soviet Union was rapidly going broke. But now, with Russia again able to afford military adventurism – such as the funding and arming of its insurgent proxy force in Ukraine – Russia is apparently able to afford more aid, including military aid, to regional troublemakers.

There are plenty on hand. The Soviets' old friend from the 1980s, Daniel Ortega, has been the president of Nicaragua (again) since 2007. Ortega and other anti-American dictators (and dictator-wannabes) such as Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro and Bolivia's Evo Morales will be eager recipients of Russian aid tied to destabilizing their neighboring nations.

Putin's boldness in the Crimea and Ukraine hasn't been tempered by Obama's mini-sanctions. He has been encouraged by Obama's playing a weak hand around the world. In Ukraine, in the Iran nuclear negotiations and in sending Secretary of State John Kerry on another failed mission to demand a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama's foreign policy is failing comprehensively. That serves to increase Putin's confidence in his own diplomatic and military maneuvering to destabilize other nations.

Putin's timing is impeccable. Not only is Obama's foreign policy failing at every turn, part of any solution to the crisis along our southern border will have to include measures - such as the cutoff of foreign aid to offending governments - that Senate Democrats wouldn't support. For the same reason, he won't demand a change to the law that blocks deporting of Central American children.

Obama is caught between his own ineptitude, his party's ideology, and Putin's ambitions in the Western Hemisphere. Obama's actions are, again, creating power vacuums that Putin eagerly fills.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research. He is the author of "The BDS War Against Israel," with Herbert London.
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Jed Babbin

Columnist
The Washington Examiner

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