Monday, October 27, 2008

A Sop for Raul?

Russia will offer to share its air defense expertise with Cuba, when a military delegation from Moscow visits the island this week. As Reuters reports (from Russian press accounts):

"The Russian and Cuban military will exchange experience in organising tactical air defence and in training officers," Interfax quoted Russian Land Forces spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.

The two sides will "discuss the prospect of training Cuban servicemen at the tactical air defence academies and training centres in Russia, using upgraded Russian-made military hardware," Interfax quoted him as saying.

According to Konashenkov, the Russian delegation will also "look at ways to strengthen ties" between Russia's armed forces, and those of Cuba.

What remains unexplained his how Moscow will expand those contacts. While Russia has long been the primary source for Cuba's military hardware and training, the level of support declined dramatically with the end of the Cold War--and a halt in Moscow's sugar subsidies.

That was a double blow for Havana's military forces. Without Russian economic aid, Cuba could no longer buy advanced military hardware, even at "friendship" prices. And, with Moscow's economic collapse of the early 1990s, the Kremlin could no longer afford to prop up former client states. As a result, Havana's foreign adventures came to an end, and the Cuban military became a shadow of its former self.

Fifteen years later, Russia's economic condition has improved, but Cuba remains a basket case. That's why the line about "training Cuban personnel in Russia...using upgraded military hardware" is so interesting. Giving the Cubans access to state-of-the-art systems in Russia does little to improve the island's air defenses, assuming that there are no plans for a follow-on sale of advanced fighters, radars, or surface-to-air missile systems.

Fact is, Cuba can't afford advanced arms. A single SU-30 Flanker costs at least $30 million (and even more if you want maintenance and training support as part of the package); a single S-300 SAM battalion will set you back at least $300 million, and the Russians prefer cash. In advance.

On the other hand, there is the chance that a third party, say Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, might finance the purchase for Cuba. But, with oil prices now dipping below $60 a barrel, buying new equipment for the Cubans is becoming a luxury that Chavez can't afford.

Indeed, as long as crude prices remain low, Mr. Chavez will have difficulty financing his own military purchases. Providing financial aid for socialist allies will fall much lower on his priority list. If Cuba's Raul Castro was hoping to rebuild his military with Chavez's money, he may need to rethink those plans.

Reading between the lines of the Russian announcement, this week's visit looks more like a sop for Havana, and not a sign of upgrades to come. The officer leading Moscow's delegation has an impressive title (Chief of the Tactical Air Defense Headquarters), but he's only a three-star.

Compare that to the parade of Russian VIPs who've visited Caracas in recent months, and you'll see that the air defense visit to Havana is more of a face-saving trip, both for Russians and their Cuban hosts. After a recent visit by TU-160 bombers (and pending exercises between the Russian and Venezuelan navies), Cuba is feeling a bit left out. Sending the air defense team is a low-cost effort to mend fences, without making promises that Havana (or Moscow) can live up to.

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