By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
MOSCOW, July 21 -- Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons could be deployed to Cuba in response to U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, a Russian newspaper reported Monday, citing an unnamed senior Russian air force official.
The report in Izvestia, which could not be confirmed, prompted memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war after Nikita Khrushchev put nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island. The weapons were eventually withdrawn in an apparent Soviet climb-down, but President John F. Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.
A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry declined to comment on the report Monday, but did not deny it. Izvestia is often a forum for strategic leaks by Kremlin and other officials.
"While they are deploying the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, our strategic bombers will already be landing in Cuba," Izvestia quoted the source as saying.
It was unclear if the source was suggesting that Russia would reopen a base in Cuba or merely use an airfield there for stopovers by the bombers, Tu-160s and Tu-95s, which are already capable of reaching the United States from bases in Russia.
Russian strategic bombers, long mothballed, resumed worldwide patrols last year under orders from then-President Vladimir Putin. The flights have continued under his successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
Aircraft from the NATO alliance have repeatedly scrambled as the bombers approached but did not enter the airspace of alliance countries. The Russian bombers also buzzed low over the USS Nimitz, an American aircraft carrier, in the Pacific Ocean this year.
Some Russian experts dismissed the possibility of a new Cuban crisis. "It's very silly psychological warfare," said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, in a telephone interview. "Putin and Medvedev are very militant in words but very cautious in practical issues. They have not taken any step that can be seen as a real threat to the West, and I cannot see any reason to raise this threat against the U.S."
But "if it's true, it looks like a repetition of the Caribbean crisis" he said, using the common Russian term for the Cuban missile crisis.
Cuba was a client state of Moscow's for decades during the Soviet era. However, those ties have largely ended since the early 1990s. Russia closed its last base on the island, a radar facility, in 2002, and it is unclear whether the Cuban government would grant landing rights to Russian bombers.
The United States says it wants to deploy tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland as a defensive measure against missiles that might be fired from countries such as Iran. U.S. officials insist that the system presents no threat to Russia, which, they say, could easily overwhelm it by launching multiple missiles at the same time.
But Russia views it as a means to peer into Russian airspace. Officials here argue it could be easily expanded to undermine their country's strategic defenses and that Iran is many years away from developing missiles that could reach the United States or its allies in Western Europe.
Putin has in the past invoked the Cuban missile crisis to register opposition to the missile defense project, saying it could touch off brinksmanship as dangerous as in 1962.
Putin also said last year that Russia could target the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with missiles and deploy missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that borders Poland, if the United States pushes ahead with its plans.
Medvedev has also registered opposition. And this month, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "we will be forced to react not with diplomatic but with military-technical methods."
The United States has reached agreement with the Czech Republic, but negotiations with Poland have proved difficult, continuing in Warsaw on Monday. The Polish government wants the United States to upgrade its air defenses in return for the use of its soil for the missile defense system.
"The two sides have said they are drawing closer," said Piotr Paszkowski, a spokesman for the Polish Foreign Ministry, after Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski held talks with U.S. Assistant Undersecretary of State Dan Fried on Monday.