Russia Considers Using Cuba For Refuelling of Nuclear Bombers

MOSCOW - Russia was today considering the use of bases in Cuba for its nuclear bombers, in a move that revives memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and which is likely to profoundly annoy the United States.

Russian military sources said that Moscow is contemplating using Cuba as a refuelling base for its nuclear-bomb carrying aircraft. The move is in retaliation for the Bush administration's plan to site a missile defence shield in Europe.

Russia objects vehemently to the Pentagon's plan. It says the US's proposed system in Poland and the Czech republic - which formally agreed a deal with Washington last week - poses a direct threat to Russia and its security.

According to a report in Monday's Izvestiya, the Kremlin now wants to use Cuba as a base for its long-range Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic nuclear bombers. Citing a "highly-placed military source", the paper said discussions had taken place.

"While they are deploying the anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech republic, our long-range strategic aircraft already will be landing in Cuba," the source told the paper. No final decision on landing bombers in Cuba had been taken, it added.

Today defence analysts told the Guardian there was little strategic point in using Cuba as a nuclear base - adding that the idea appeared to have been floated simply as a way of irritating the US and underscoring Russia's anger.

Russia's ageing nuclear aircraft have a range of 2,000-3,000kms - allowing them comfortably to fire a nuclear missile at the US from much further away, defence expert Pavel Felgenhauer said. "Frankly in Cuba they would be sitting ducks," he added.

Additionally, there were other places were the planes could refuel, he said. "Any deployment in Cuba would be highly provocative and very costly. There would be no military advantage. Cuba would want compensation," Felgenhauer said.

He added: "They [the Russians] are trying to tell the guys [in America] that if they don't back out of their missile defence shield in Europe, we can make mischief in different places."

It was not immediately clear whether Cuba had agreed to Russia's proposal. In a brief, cryptic note posted on a government website, Fidel Castro said his brother Raul - Cuba's president - was wise not to respond to the report.

Castro said that Cuba was not obliged to offer the US an explanation for the story, "nor ask for excuses or forgiveness." Most observers believe that Raul - who took over from his brother in February - would be unlikely to agree to any request from Moscow.

But today's apparent discussion is reminiscent of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when Khrushchev attempted to site nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island. His aim was to lesson the then strategic nuclear gap with the US.

Khrushchev eventually backed down and withdrew the missiles. The US secretly removed its missiles from Turkey. It also agreed not to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro's communist regime.

During the Cold War, Cuba remained an important military ally for the Soviet Union. In 2002, however, Russia's then president Vladimir Putin decided to close Russia's Soviet-era radar and listening station in Cuba on the grounds of cost.

Last summer Putin ordered the resumption of worldwide bomber patrols by Russia's nuclear aircraft. Although some experts have dismissed the flights as mere "willy waving", Nato jets including from Britain have scrambled in response.

The US state department today said it had not had official confirmation from the Russian government about the report. "We continue to work with the Russians on this issue," Gonzalo Gallegos told the Associated Press, referring to the US's missile defence shield.

He added: "We have consistently made it clear to them that our proposed deployment of a limited missile defence system in Europe poses no threat to them or their nuclear deterrent."

Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev, has disappointed western observers who had hoped he might take a more conciliatory foreign policy line. During an address to ambassadors in Moscow this month, he explicitly criticised the US's missile defence shield, promising Russia would respond 'appropriately'.

Russia's approach has recently hardened on several key international issues, experts say.

"It's become much more rigid," Felgenhauer said, adding that hardline officials inside Russia's foreign and defence ministries appeared to be responsible. "There is uncertainty over who is really in charge of Russian foreign policy," he said.

He added: "We are returning to policy positions agreed last autumn. There is no series attempt at compromise. Right now there is zero purpose in compromise until there is a new administration in Washington."

"We are just spitting at each other," he observed.

(c) 2008 The Guardian

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