Moscow and Havana have agreed to reopen a Cold War-era signals intelligence (SIGINT) base in Lourdes, Cuba.
An agreement was reached during Putin’s visit to Cuba last week to reopen the base, Russia business daily Kommersant reported last week. That was confirmed by a Russian security source who told Reuters: “A framework agreement has been agreed.”
The base was set up in 1964 after the Cuban missile crisis had brought the U.S. and Soviet Union close to confrontation over Moscow’s proposal to place nuclear weapons on Cuban soil.
Havana shut it down in 2001 because of financial issues and American pressure.
Located south of Cuba’s capital Havana and just 150 miles from the U.S. coast, the base left many parts of the U.S. vulnerable to Soviet communication intercepts, including exchanges between Florida space centres and U.S. spacecraft.
Here’s what a Congressional report from 2000 said about the facility:
• The Secretary of Defence formally expressed concerns to Congress regarding the espionage complex at Lourdes, Cuba, and its use as a base for intelligence directed against the United States.
• The Secretary of Defence, referring to a 1998 Defence Intelligence Agency assessment, reported that the Russian Federation leased the Lourdes facility for an estimated $US100 million to $US300 million a year.
• It has been reported that the Lourdes facility was the largest such complex operated by the Russian Federation and its intelligence service outside the region of the former Soviet Union.
• The Lourdes facility was reported to cover a 28 square-mile area with over 1,500 Russian engineers, technicians, and military personnel working at the base.
• Experts familiar with the Lourdes facility have reportedly confirmed that the base had multiple groups of tracking dishes and its own satellite system, with some groups used to intercept telephone calls, faxes, and computer communications, in general, and with other groups used to cover targeted telephones and devices.
• News sources have reported that the Lourdes facility obtained sensitive information about United States military operations during Operation Desert Storm.
• Academic studies cite official U.S. sources affirming that the Lourdes facility was used to collect personal information about United States citizens in the private and government sectors, and offered the means to engage in cyberwarfare against the U.S.
• The operational significance of the Lourdes facility reportedly grew dramatically after Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued a 1996 order demanding the Russian intelligence community increase its gathering of U.S. and other Western economic and trade secrets.
• It has been reported that the Government of the Russian Federation is estimated to have spent in excess of $US3 billion in the operation and modernization of the Lourdes facility.
• Former U.S. Government officials were quoted confirming reports about the Russian Federation’s expansion and upgrade of the Lourdes facility.
• It was reported in December 1999 that a high-ranking Russian military delegation headed by Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel-General Valentin Korabelnikov visited Cuba to discuss the continuing Russian operation of the Lourdes facility.
Defence experts agree the base could significantly boost Russia’s ability to spy on America during a low-point in U.S.-Russia relations.
Ivan Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Trends Studies, estimated that the Lourdes base was used to acquire at least 50% of the Soviet Union’s radio-intercepted intelligence from the U.S., according to Reuters.
Reopening the Lourdes base could boost Russia’s intelligence-gathering capabilities “quite significantly” as U.S.-Russia relations remain strained. “One needs to remember that Russia’s technical intelligence abilities are very weak. This will help,” Konovalov told Reuters.
If reopened, the base will demonstrate Russia’s interest in maintaining its own alliances to counter those of the U.S.
“After what’s happened in Ukraine, with all these alliances the United States has developed, Russia is showing it’s joining the game and that it too can lean on allies and form alliances,” Sergey Ermakov, head of the Regional Security Section at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, told Reuters.
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