‘Nuclear bomber base’ raises fears of a new Cuban crisis – Tony Halprin – www.timesonline.co.uk
The Russian military, furious at American plans to install a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, is talking up the prospect of turning Cuba into a base for its long-range nuclear bombers.
Defense chiefs in Moscow are said to be pressing for the Kremlin to retaliate against the missile shield by placing strategic bombers off the American coast. The move threatens a rerun of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin strongly opposes the deployment of ten interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic, despite American assurances that the shield is aimed at rogue states such as Iran and poses no threat to Russia. President Medvedev threatened “retaliatory steps” at the G8 summit this month after Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, sealed an agreement with the Czech Republic. The Foreign Ministry said that Russia would react “with military-technical methods”.
Yesterday Izvestia cited Defense Ministry sources as saying that crews from its TU160 Blackjack and TU95MS Bear long-range bombers had already visited Cuba to inspect a potential landing strip for use as a refueling centre.
It claimed that facilities were also being considered in Venezuela, whose President, Hugo Chávez, agreed to step up military co-operation with Russia in talks with Mr Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, in Moscow on Tuesday.
The bases would host refueling aircraft and maintenance for the nuclear bombers, which resumed round-the-clock patrols last August for the first time since the Cold War. General Pyotr Deinikin, former commander of the air force, said that they would allow Russia to maintain an almost permanent presence off the US coast.
The plan has not received official confirmation in Moscow and it was unclear whether Russia would base nuclear bombers permanently in Cuba or use the communist island and former Soviet ally solely as a refueling centre. Last night Ilshat Baichurin, the Defence Ministry spokesman, dismissed the reports as “disinformation”, according to the Interfax and RIA-Novosti news agencies.
The prospect has drawn a sharp response in the US. General Norton Schwartz, nominated as the new air force chief of staff, told a confirmation hearing in Washington DC on Tuesday that placing Russian bombers in Cuba “crosses a red line for the United States of America”. He said: “I would certainly offer the best military advice that we engage the Russians not to pursue that approach.”
Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, entered the fray yesterday, praising his brother Raúl for refusing to comment on the possibility of hosting Russian bases. He said that Havana did not need to offer the US “any explanations or excuses”, he wrote in a letter to the cubadebate.cu website.
Russia’s nuclear bomber force has come into repeated contact with Nato jets since Mr Putin ordered the resumption of long-range patrols. Russia also organized its biggest naval exercises since the collapse of the Soviet Union in January. The RAF and other Nato jets shadowed the Russian task force as it test-launched nuclear missiles and practiced strike tactics off the coast of France and Spain.
Mr Putin has threatened to place nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave surrounded by EU states, if objections to the missile shield and the expansion of Nato into Ukraine and Georgia are ignored.