Obama’s move to restore relations with Cuba, the Soviet Union’s great Cold War ally, made some Russian conservatives uneasy. Their concern is misplaced.

It remains to be seen if the U.S. and Cuba will be able to restore diplomatic relations. Photo: AP

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a radical change of course on Cuba. After the two countries agreed to swap U.S. citizen Alan Gross, languishing in a Cuban jail, for three Cuban spies serving sentences in the United States, Obama declared he intends to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and ask Congress to lift the economic embargo against the island. He believes that Cuba is changing for the better.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded promptly to the news with a positive statement: “The cessation of Washington’s baseless accusations against Havana for supposedly supporting terrorism, the restoration of diplomatic relations and the lifting of at least some travel restrictions on U.S. visitors to the island are long overdue measures.”

But are Russia’s conservative politicians happy? Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested, with barely concealed displeasure, that the U.S. would now “smother Cuba in embraces.”

Some Russian experts said they see a concealed motive behind Obama’s move. According to Alexei Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security of the Russian Academy of Sciences, “one of the motives of the U.S. President is the desire to reduce Cuba’s dependence on Russia, and Russia’s overall influence in Latin America.”

“His other partners and allies, such as Russia, have turned into opponents, and he [Obama] is feverishly looking to turn former enemies into allies,” asserts Arbatov.

Russian neocons can calm down — first of all, because talk about the rapid lifting of the trade and economic embargo against Cuba is premature.

From an historical perspective, Cuba and the United States are doomed to be together. However, it will not happen until the present generation of leaders departs and Cuba acquires democracy, as understood by its powerful neighbor to the north.

The land where the Cold War never ended

The Russian conservative reaction comes in the context of deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow, and stands against a backdrop decades of confrontation over the island.

The rivalry between the Soviet Union (later, Russia) and the United States over Cuba has a long and turbulent history. During the “Cuban missile crisis” of 1962, it brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. In the early 2000s, on the wave of rapprochement between Moscow and Washington after the tragic events of 9/11, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced as a goodwill gesture the closure of the Lourdes intelligence facility near Havana, whose antennae were pointed at America.

But the smell of past confrontation still hangs in the air. In the spring of this year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russian military bases would soon encircle the Earth, from Singapore to Argentina. Such speculation was soon dismissed. But the initial headlines in the Russian media were predictable: Russia returns to Cuba, and plans to resume military aid to the “Island of Freedom.” The approach of another warship to the region was seen as a sign of Moscow’s intention to build a naval base on the island. There were “confirmed” reports that Russian strategic bombers would be refueled on Cuba.

None of this had any grounding in reality. By that time, Cuban authorities had long been seeking normalized relations with America, following the cessation of mass subsidies from Moscow. According to U.S. researchers William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, authors of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana,” recently published in the U.S., Havana attempted to open a dialogue with President Bill Clinton at least twice, in 1994 and 1998. The envoy for Cuba was none other than Colombia’s world-famous writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He acted as a go-between, delivering Clinton’s missives to Cuba and personally handing him Fidel Castro’s letters of response.

For the Cuban government, the main purpose of this correspondence was to convince the White House that Cuba posed no military threat to U.S. national security. Only when the U.S. leadership understood that basic fact did Havana strive to regulate immigration issues and have the embargo lifted and restrictions relaxed on U.S citizens traveling to the island with hard currency for Cuba’s empty coffers.

That being the case, there could be no talk of a resumption of military cooperation between Havana and Moscow. The last major issue in Cuban-Russian relations was resolved this summer. On the eve of his visit to the island, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote off 95 percent of Cuba’s debt to Russia — an astronomical $35 billion.

The revived prospect of normalized ties with the United States is more important to Cuba than ever before. Raul Castro’s administration is deeply concerned about the potential loss of Venezuela’s hefty backing. Caracas has been hit most by the drop in oil prices and its economy is on the verge of collapse, meaning that Venezuela simply may not have the capacity to continue its effectively free deliveries of oil to Cuba, currently running at 100,000 barrels per day. Russia, with its own financial and economic crisis, is also not in a position to help its former strategic ally. In these circumstances the only hope is America, which lies just 90 miles away.

Obama’s slow boat to Cuba

Rogozin’s conclusion that the U.S. may soon fully embrace the Soviet Union’s erstwhile Cold War ally may be rash. Relations between Havana and Washington have always been “trilateral” — the third side being the powerful Cuban diaspora in the United States. In the U.S. Congress, there are three politicians with Cuban roots in the Senate and four in the House of Representatives. Two of the senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, are potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016.

Recently another candidate, former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, son of the 41st and brother of the 43rd U.S. presidents, threw his hat into the ring. They are all implacably hostile to the Castro regime and will push back against Obama’s initiatives.

If the Republicans win in 2016, the new White House incumbent could put the brakes on, or even undo the “historic shift” in U.S. policy. That happened to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s initiatives, under which the two countries set up mutual “Interests Sections.” A later American President, Bill Clinton, drew a lesson from that experience, telling Gabriel Garcia Marquez that Carter’s attempts to normalize relations with Cuba had cost him many political points