Last week, Cuban President Raúl Castro wrapped up a whirligig tour through Moscow, the first visit by a Cuban leader in a quarter century. For eight days, he was shuttled around the Russian capital in a flurry of museum visiting, wreath laying, and agreement signing. The time for bickering over Soviet-era debt and who abandoned whom, it seemed, was over; the time for a new friendship between old friends had dawned. And so, Castro and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev “expressed their satisfaction with the growing collaboration between the two countries,” wrote Granma, Cuba’s official state paper, at the height of the visit. “It is a testimonial to the historic friendship and mutual respect that exists between the Russian and Cuban peoples.”
All told, the two leaders expressed their historical amity in the form of over 30 agreements, and, though they kept mum on many of the details, Castro reportedly returned to Havana “very happy.” How could he not have? Those deals were worth over $350 million in fresh loans and hurricane aid, and impoverished Cuba needs everything it can get.
But Russia has been careful not to make this visit seem like a Soviet-era Russo-Cuban love-fest. Back then, there would have been a parade for a visiting Castro; this time, the Red Square was procession-free. Another key difference: 30 years ago, the other Castro–who was doubly important as an ideological ally and a persistent nuisance to America–would have left Moscow with grants, not loans, in his pocket. (”The era of gift-giving is over,” a Russian official in Havana said.) There was also a change in tone: As a western official in Havana told me, while the Cubans were busy playing up the renewal of ties, the Russians were keeping them at arm’s length. They wanted to send a clear signal that things are going to be different this time.
Things, however, are pretty much the same. It’s just that, like many other things in contemporary Russia, they just have different names. So instead of “subsidies,” Cuba gets “loans.” And no longer will there be a lopsided pro forma barter system. The new agreement that essentially swaps planes for rum (which Russians don’t even drink)? In 2009 that’s called “trade.”
So why is Russia–the emerging economy hardest hit by the economic crisis–lending a few hundred million dollars it probably won’t get back to a country that can barely pay for its goods and with which it no longer shares an ideology?
The reason, like the tactics, is old: sticking it to Uncle Sam. While the U.S. is distracted by its own melting economy, Russia gets to curry some influence right under America’s nose, perhaps as retribution for the U.S.’s support of Georgia last summer. Indeed, the coffee table in the lobby of the Russian embassy in Havana has a stack of Spanish-language pamphlets called “South Ossetia: Chronicle of a Genocide”–Cuba was one of the few countries to support Russia in August–and the Russian official there spoke to me more about the “anachronisms” of the American system than about Russo-Cuban relations, which was the purpose of my visit. Renewing a historical friendship, it seemed, was more of a ploy to make an old enemy pay attention.
This time, however, Russia is too clever to think that it’s well served by angering a new president who might meet them halfway on, say, the European missile defense shield. In using Cuba for spite, Russia could have reopened Lourdes, a Cold War listening post outside Havana that Putin closed in 2001. It didn’t. Instead, in throwing some pocket change to a country that’s not even in play, says Alexander Kliment of the Eurasia Group, “Russia is simply stacking its bargaining chips ahead of its first meeting with Obama.” How? “By asking, ‘Where are those asymmetrical pressure points?’” Kliment says. “That’s what Russia always looks for.”
One such pressure point was discovered last week when Russia handed the Kyrgyz $2 billion to kick the U.S. off a crucial air base. Another pressure point? Spending $7.5 billion to fund an alliance of former Soviet republics in the Baltics and Central Asia to consolidate its influence in the region. When it meets with Obama in the spring, Russia can then easily back off these none-too-crucial arrangements in return for some concessions from the U.S.
Which nicely explains the logic of returning to the old tactic of a none-too-profitable trade with Cuba: Lopsided trade agreements? $354 million. Pressing a steel thumb into one those pressure points? Priceless.