How real is Russia’s threat to deploy missiles to Latin America?

Dismissed by some as propaganda ‘nonsense’, Moscow’s warning evokes memories of the Cuban missile crisis.

People demonstrate against war on October 27, 1962 in front of the White House in Washington, DC, during the Cuban missile crisis. On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy informed the American people of the presence of missile sites in Cuba. Tensions mounted, and the world wondered if there could be a peaceful resolution to the crisis, until November 20, 1962, when Russian bombers left Cuba, and Kennedy lifted the naval blockade. (Photo by AFP)
People demonstrate against war on October 27, 1962 in front the White House in Washington, DC, during the Cuban missile crisis [AFP]

When Tamara Rakhimbayeva remembers seeing Fidel Castro almost 60 years ago, her face lights up.

“He was so young and handsome. A lion,” the 79-year-old retired librarian said from the Russian capital, with a nostalgic smile.

“We were all so happy to see him,” she told Al Jazeera, reminiscing about the jubilant crowds in central Moscow celebrating the Cuban leader’s 1963 visit.

Latin America in general and Cuba in particular were red Moscow’s darlings.

Bringing Communism to Washington’s back yard meant dealing a double blow to the White House and raising the stakes in the Cold War.

And Cuba, known in the USSR as the “island of freedom”, topped the Soviet charts.

Feature and documentary films about Cuban revolutionaries were shown on nascent Soviet television and in packed movie theatres.

People spent hours in lines to buy Cuban oranges and bananas, while pricey Cuban-made rum and cigars were fashionable among the sophisticated Soviet youth of the 1960s.

So, when Russia said on January 14 that it could “neither confirm nor exclude” the deployment of Russian missiles to Cuba and Venezuela, to many Russians, the news was not just a threat.

It was a reminder of the USSR’s military and political might, its confrontation with the United States and the collective West, and, of course, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Known in the former USSR as the “Caribbean Missile Crisis”, it made the world think for several endless weeks that a nuclear war was imminent and unavoidable.

The words of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov that the deployment’s possibility “depends on the actions by our US counterparts” were also a practical response to Western pressure on Moscow.

The pressure began after the Kremlin amassed 100,000 troops next to Ukraine and got ready, according to Western diplomats and a string of military experts, to invade the pro-Western, ex-Soviet nation.

“There are parallels with the Caribbean Missile Crisis,” Ihor Romanenko, a retired lieutenant general and Ukraine’s former deputy chief of staff, told Al Jazeera.

He said that the threat follows Moscow’s old political stratagem that consists of “an ultimatum, actions, and then the dividends”.

It was tried and tested during the 1962 crisis, when the USSR removed its nuclear weapons from Cuba in response to Washington’s withdrawal of nuclear missiles from Turkey.

This time, the threat aims at getting a pledge from US President Joe Biden to leave Ukraine – or even the entire former USSR except for the Baltic states – in Russia’s political orbit.

“If they don’t deploy the missiles, then there will be an agreement, [Russia] will have to get something, get Ukraine at a bargain price or all the former Soviet republics,” Romanenko said.

But how feasible is the deployment – if it ever takes place, considering that Putin closed down a Soviet-era surveillance facility in Cuba in 2000 as he tried to appease the US.

“To me, these ideas are beyond reasonable,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based defence analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

When the USSR established military outposts in Cuba, Vietnam or Yemen, they were part of the Soviet military planning system and played an auxiliary role to the fleet and reconnaissance efforts, he said.

But these days, when the Russian fleet is vastly reduced in size, a Russian military base in Latin America simply “has no role”, Luzin added.

Russia’s tiny navy toehold in northwestern Syria supports Moscow’s military presence in the war-torn nation and backs Russia’s navy operations in the Mediterranean, and even the Kremlin’s plans to open a base in Sudan may support its small operations in the Indian Ocean, he said.

But a base in another hemisphere makes no sense.

“The only thing one can imagine there is a radio-electronic reconnaissance centre or a space monitoring station,” Luzin said.

A Western analyst described the threat as nothing but “propagandistic noise” that has been coming out of Russia lately.

“Considering the costs involved if this ‘threat’ were to be carried out in a strategically relevant way, and the relatively small contribution this would make to Russia’s priorities in Ukraine, I believe this to be a bluff,” Kevork Oskanian, a lecturer at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, told Al Jazeera.

“Unlike the threatening noises regarding Ukraine, which should be taken in all seriousness,” he added.

The Kremlin fiercely denies it is planning to invade Ukraine – and says it can move its troops wherever it wants.

Meanwhile, Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, warn NATO against expanding eastwards, to Ukraine and Georgia.

Putin warns that Ukraine joining the US-led transatlantic alliance would mark the crossing of a “red line”. He has repeatedly said Ukrainians and Russians are part of “one nation” and urged Kyiv to make Russian the second official language.

But Ukraine went through two revolutions in 2005 and 2014, both times rejecting Russia’s political supremacy and seeking a path to join the European Union and NATO.

After the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which saw months-long protests topple pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin used the power vacuum to annex Crimea and back separatists in the southeastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The rebels carved out two authoritarian “People’s Republics” that completely depend on Russia economically and politically.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before holding talks with European diplomats and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later this week.

“We know that there are plans in place to increase that [Russian] force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine,” Blinken said.

Source: Al Jazeera