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Cuba stands to benefit as Russia and the United States vie for its attention

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Cuban President Raul Castro attend a ceremony at the Mausoleum of the Soviet Internationalist Soldier in Havana on July 11, 2014. (Ladyrene Perez/Cubadebate via AP)
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HAVANA — During another October 53 years ago, a young Fidel Castro played Cuba off the world's two superpowers. The Soviets installed nukes on the island, the Americans demanded their removal, and Castro ended up with a U.S. promise not to invade, assuring the survival of his Cuban revolution.

This week it seemed like the Khrushchev era all over again, minus the scary red buttons. Moscow signed off on $1.4 billion in loans for a massive upgrade at two Cuban power plants. Russian cultural officials announced plans to build an art museum in the center of Havana. And Cuba's state media cheered Russian airstrikes in Syria, depicting the intervention as a decisive, overdue effort to crush the Islamic State and end the civil war.

Opponents of Obama's new engagement policy with Havana say there's more, alleging that Cuban troops have joined the fight in Syria. Fox News and U.S. lawmakers echoed those claims last week, but State Department and Pentagon officials said they could not confirm them. Cuba's Foreign Ministry called the allegations "unfounded and irresponsible."

What's undeniable, though, is that Cuba, distressed damsel of the Caribbean, stands to benefit once more with two world powers wooing it.

Putting aside the claims about Cuban troops in Putin's ranks, Havana's new love for Russia probably has more to do with the shaky future of its key ally and patron, Venezuela. Hugo Chavez's death in 2013 and the failures of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have left the Castro government looking to diversify trade relations and find new benefactors. Or old ones.

The United States is a key part of Cuba's diversification strategy, but communist officials are wary of engaging too fast with American businesses and American influences. And they reiterated this week that they've learned painful economic lessons about eggs and baskets.

[U.S. officials are frustrated by lack of progress in trade with Cuba]

"Under no circumstances will we go back to depending on a single trade partner, even if today it seems possible that in a not-too-distant future the economic, commercial and financial blockade against my country will end," Cuban foreign trade minister Rodrigo Malmierca said this week, referring to U.S. sanctions that entered their 56th year Monday.

Russia fits into the plan, along with China, Europe and emerging trade partners such as Saudi Arabia, Angola and Qatar, where Cuba is sending doctors and medical personnel in exchange for much-needed hard currency.

As for warming ties to Putin, former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray said: "It's a Russian thing."

"The Russians are obviously throwing their weight around, and Cuba is a place where they had influence and still have influence," Alzugaray said. "They have influence with the military, which uses Russian military hardware, and they have economic influence."

A strong, muscular Russia also fits Cuba's broader geopolitical vision, he added.

"Cuba is interested in a multipolar world, not a unipolar world, so it's in Cuba's interest for Russia to continue doing what it's doing."

Vladimir Putin visited the island in July 2014, six months before President Obama and Raúl Castro announced their deal to reestablish relations. He pledged new infrastructure projects and wiped the books of nearly all of Cuba's $35 billion in Soviet-era debt. The biggest impasse to warmer Cuba-Russia ties was gone.

The new $1.4 billion will finance the installation of four 200-megawatt thermoelectric stations. Russia also pledged $100 million to modernize and expand a Cuban steel mill, among other projects.

"The Cuban economy is in dire straits," said Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America scholar at Columbia University. "Seeking investment and support from other sources doesn't have to be insidious — it can just be good statecraft. Before jumping to any paranoid conclusions, the question is what, if anything, the Russians are getting in return that constitutes a threat."

Putin has denied reports last year that he cut a deal to reopen a massive spy base Russia closed in Cuba in 2001, saying his country "can meet its defense needs without this component." Russian military officials also say they have no plans to establish bases in Latin America but are looking to expand "military and military-technical" cooperation in several countries, including Cuba.

A large Russian naval intelligence ship docked in Havana in plain sight during a round of talks with U.S. officials in January, one of several appearances in the city's harbor this year.

The United States needs to be vigilant about the Russian presence but not alarmist, said Carl Meacham, Americas director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in D.C.

There's also good reason to be skeptical that the aid projects in Cuba will actually happen, he added.

"The Russian economy is suffering," Meacham said. "So there's a public value for Putin in doing this, in the ability to project power and authority in the U.S. sphere of influence, but his ability to make do on these promises is at least questionable."

And for Cuba, maintaining Russia ties sends a clear signal that Havana isn't going to reorient its entire foreign policy to suit Washington, especially with the U.S. trade embargo still in place.

"For Cuba, it's a way of saying to the United States: Don't take us for granted, we still reserve right to maintain these alliances we've had, and we're not just going to give in to you just because you've demonstrated a willingness to normalize relations," Meacham said.

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The one-sided relationship with Cuba