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Jul 30, 2008 | 19:26 GMT

3 mins read

Cuba, Russia: A High-Level Meeting in Washington's Backyard

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin arrived in Cuba on July 30 to discuss Russian energy investments on the island with the Cuban leadership. On the surface, this looks like any old state visit between the Russians and the Cubans. But there are a number of reasons why this visit in particular caught STRATFOR's attention. First, the visit comes as Cuba has resurfaced as a source of geopolitical friction between Russia and the United States. In recent days, a series of rumors and denials on everything ranging from relocating Russian bombers to Cuba to Russia setting up a small aerial refueling base on the island have been making their way through the Russian press. While the Russians have not made any concrete moves yet, the specter of Russia returning to the U.S. periphery is more than enough to grab Washington's attention. Second, the Russian official who made the visit is none other than Sechin, a longtime ally of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the leader of one of Russia's two major factions. Sechin is an enormously influential figure in the Russian leadership. As a former KGB man, he commands the loyalty of Russia's powerful Federal Security Service (FSB). Moreover, as vice premier, he has considerable oversight over the Russian energy industry and is (not by coincidence) the boss of Russia's giant state oil company Rosneft. Sechin does not typically have such publicized visits. He is man who works in the shadows as any former KGB official would. Not only has this visit been publicized in both the Russian and Cuban press, but it was specifically printed in the English-language Moscow Times, which is designed for Western consumption. This visit was intended to grab the attention of the U.S. administration, particularly Kremlinologists like U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and segments of the CIA who were knee-deep in combating his activities in Latin America during the Cold War — and are likely all too familiar with Sechin's history with the Cubans. Washington is not going to be too comforted by the idea that Sechin is linking up with his old drinking buddies on the island. During his decades-long stint in the KGB during the Cold War, Sechin himself organized the Soviet Union's illegal arms transfers in Latin America and Africa, which involved him having a close relationship with the Castro brothers. While Sechin is most certainly discussing business during this visit (including talks on Russian firm LUKoil building a refinery in Cuba to process Venezuelan heavy crude), this visit is about much more than energy deals. Russia is signaling to the United States that it may be ready to get aggressive again in Washington's backyard, and Russian leaders like Sechin are going to be the ones to lead this effort.

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