Andy GrottoRussia's Mojito Squadron

The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported Monday that Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons could be deployed to Cuba in response to U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

The source was an unnamed senior Russian air force official. According to the WaPo’s Peter Finn, the Russian Defense Ministry declined comment, but did not deny it either. Finn notes that Izvestia is one of the Kremlin’s preferred forums for strategic leaks.

Russia’s not going to deploy nuclear-capable bombers to Cuba. But this episode shows just how muddled (anyone?) the U.S.-Russia relationship has become. In a relationship this complex and multifaceted, there are bound to be major differences on certain issues; this is totally natural. These differences are usually manageable if the parties view the relationship in non-zero sum terms and leaders in each country set priorities for the relationship in order to minimize the friction and maximize the respective gains from cooperation.

Neither of these principles holds much sway in the U.S.-Russian relationship today. The Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty announced in late 2001 set the stage for an increasingly acrimonious and at times hostile relationship between the two former military adversaries. Vladimir Putin, who has clamped down on freedoms at home and exploited Russia’s newfound clout in global energy markets to bully its neighbors, deserves plenty of blame for the fallout.

But Bush administration policies ranging from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to its current efforts to establish a missile defense beachhead in Eastern Europe have fed the impression in Russia that the United States is not an enlightened superpower, but an imperialistic one that seeks power and influence at Russia’s expense. This is toxic and pushes the relationship in a zero-sum direction.

Moreover, the Bush administration has proven utterly inept at setting priorities. In foreign policy generally, decisions in one discrete policy sphere almost always constrain or enable policy options in other spheres. This is especially true in U.S.-Russian relations.

For instance, it’s really hard to push the Russians into supporting tougher sanctions against Iran when your administration is building missile defense installations on their front doorstep. Something’s gotta give, and a functioning policy planning process would identify and appropriately weigh these trade-offs so that the United States gets the most out of its relationship with Moscow—and vice versa.

Let’s hope the next U.S. administration fares better.


  1. blowback (History)

    fed the impression in Russia that the United States is not an enlightened superpower, but an imperialistic one that seeks power and influence at Russia’s expense.

    I am sorry but the US is imperialistic and has been so for the last sixty years – the Cold War was never about Soviet expansionism but all about US expansionism.

    BTW, it is interesting how the neo-cons hold up the US’ continued occupation of Germany and Japan to justify their occupation of Iraq, but why are is the US still occupying those countries? To prevent the return to power of the Nazis? To prevent the Red Army taking a joy ride through the Fulda Gap one Christmas Day?

  2. Brad Lohaus

    Andy — how about a bit of balance. The Russians deserve the the lions share of blame here. The whole Bush administration point is that we don’t have a conflict with the Russians, so what’s the big deal? Now you can push back on that, but the arguments will have to do with Russian sensitivities/insecurities about being a great power.

    It seems like the Russians genuinely desire more conflict at the diplomatic level with the United States than the United States wants. Would you disagree with that statement?

  3. FSB

    Great, maybe the Russians want to protect their allies Venezuela from a pre-emptive US nuclear attack on Venezuela

    Stupidity breeds stupidity.

  4. Andy (History)


    The US has not “occupied” Germany and Japan for decades. We are there because of treaties negotiated between democratically-elected governments. We are there because because they want us there and we would leave if they asked us to – just as we did in the Philippines. We’re also “occupying” parts of Italy, Spain, the UK, Iceland, etc. – are they under the yoke of American imperialistic hegemony too?

    The US must be the worst imperialist nation in history for abandoning colonies and protectorates in the face of a mere request to leave.

  5. Bill

    The Russian threat isn’t nukes. The Tu-95 Bear isn’t much of a bomber, anyway. It’s uses are really:

    1) Long-range scouting, and
    2) Symbolic power projection.

    So the Russian threat here is to have reconaissance aircraft making regularly-scheduled runs all the way up the US East Coast, and also to get reinvolved in Latin America.

    The 2nd threat is probably the bigger one. The US is very pleased all the old Russian satellites in Europe have fallen into the American orbit. With the change in leadership, Cuba may be about to do the same. Russia here is reminding the US that it can keep Cuba afloat financially, and so prevent a victory that the US has been waiting for for 50 years.

  6. ataune (History)

    First, You should avoid thinking in term of threat. Then you can replace it with national (or security) interests which fit better with the attitude of a benevolent power. And, think a little bit, US interests have more chances to conflict with big powers like Russia or China or even EU than second level powers like Iran.

  7. Marc (History)

    It’s unclear from the article, and the subsequent comments at the Schwartz/Donley hearings at SASC the other day, whether the bombers would be “deployed” or rather using a re-activated airstrip for refueling purposes. I’ve heard both hypothetical situations bandied about.

    The MOD is already walking away from this report, so I think that trial balloon is losing helium with a quickness.

  8. Hope is Not A Foreign Policy (History)

    The Bush administration is an easy justification for Russian behavior. The fact is that Russia would be modernizing its nuclear weapons complex whether a Republican or Democrat occupied the White House.

  9. Robert Kelly (History)

    “The Bush administration is an easy justification for Russian behavior. The fact is that Russia would be modernizing its nuclear weapons complex whether a Republican or Democrat occupied the White House.”

    Ya, so agreed. Why would Russia want to start a real (aka nuclear war) with anyone when things are so good with Russia…well, not necessarily with all all the populace but at
    least with those who have a real vote..

  10. Major Lemon (History)

    Russians support Iranian arrogance for 2 reasons. Iranian money, future concessions from the West.

  11. Hope is Not A Foreign Policy (History)

    A modern, credible nuclear deterrent confers significant political benefits to Russia. Thinking about nuclear weapons in only a warfighting context fails to appreciate their full impact. States with nuclear weapons are treated differently than those without them.

  12. scud

    That’s a little bit over the top, Andy. You seem to put equal blame on Washington and Moscow for Russia’s little tantrums. (And frankly, to make a post about this is to play Russia’s game.) I would be very disappointed if this blog became a venue to rant at Bush policies and became partisan.

    Also, Russia’s reaction to the withdrawal from the ABM treaty was extremely moderate, almost muted. Those were the days.

  13. Alan Tomlinson (History)

    With due respect to several of the previous posters, if I were in charge of the Russian government, I would be royally pissed-off at the US government’s almost total lack of respect with regard to the siting of the missile defense systems. In a perfect world, the Russians would realize that this missile defense kabuki is totally worthless, but it’s not a perfect world.

    A majority of the German population would be more than happy if the US military took its show down the road. From what I can tell, the US military is in Germany so that it can drink good beer. I would argue that the US military is allowed to remain in Germany as punishment for WWII. They are certainly contributing absolutely nothing to the security of Germany.


    Alan Tomlinson

  14. Gridlock (History)

    “The US must be the worst imperialist nation in history for abandoning colonies and protectorates in the face of a mere request to leave.”

    Ha, try telling that to the Saudis. Or the Chagos islanders, or the Iraqis (who are being told to surrender airspace under 29,000 ft and the ability to charge US citizens with any crime, in perpetuity).

    “Ok for me but not for thee” – as we saw with US missiles in Turkey in the 1960s and we see now with “nuclear capable bombers” in Bagram, Kyrgzystan, all the oceans of the world, etc etc etc.

  15. blowback (History)

    Andy – Guantanamo!

  16. Brad Lohaus

    This actually raises an even bigger foreign policy question. If people have sensibilities that cause them to behave in ways that seem unfair, i.e. the Russians know our NMD system doesn’t threaten them but act like it is the worst thing in the world, etc., etc., what is the appropriate response? One school of thought would be to cut back on whatever behaviors make other people mad, even if the substantive warrants behind the claims seem a bit fishy. Another school would says you should reward that sort of behavior and just stand up for yourself. The truth is probably somewhere in between. What do people think?

  17. Andy (History)


    The Saudi’s told us to go – and WE WENT! Panama wanted us to leave – and WE WENT! The Philippines wanted us to leave – and WE WENT! Uzbekistan ordered us out of Karshi-Khanabad – and WE WENT! If the Governments of Germany, Japan, the UK or anyone else told the US that leases on bases would not be renewed – we’d leave there too. In fact, the US has already taken the majority of its forces out of Germany. And what are we to make of the “permanent” German military presence on US soil?

    As for Iraq, what you claim is not possible absent a treaty, which does not appear forthcoming. And now Iraq is demanding a timetable withdrawal of US forces – what an incompetent empire we have for allowing such intransigence from a puppet leader of vassal state!

    I’m also not sure what your point is with missiles in Turkey in the 1960’s since the Turks wanted them more than we did. Nor do I understand what you mean about Bagram and “nuclear capable bombers.” Any strip of concrete or pavement 5000 feet long can handle “nuclear capable bombers,” namely F-16’s with B-61’s.

    The long and short of it is that when nations either ask the US to remove military forces from their territory or fail to renew leases required to support those forces, the US complies and withdraws the forces – strange behavior for an empire indeed!


    Guantanamo is unique in that the treaty lets the US maintain the base in perpetuity. Yes, it’s a legacy from an earlier colonial era. In any event, your original point was about the supposed US “occupation” of countries – Does the US presence at Guantanamo add Cuba to your list of occupied nations? Or maybe (getting back to the topic of the post for a second) the Russian presence is an “occupation” or maybe it’s Venezuela that’s the Cuban occupier.

  18. David Clark (History)

    I’d like to make one last, probably futile plea for more activist forum moderation on ACW.

    The value of this site is that the comments (almost uniquely in the blogosphere) often contain valuable expert technical analysis. Unfortunately, this has been submerged lately by the same old Europe vs. USA culture war that one finds on any of a million other blogs. While no doubt therapeutic to the writers, this kind of rhetoric belongs in more general online communities.

    I come here for expert technical analysis. Please consider a more activist moderation policy that focuses on the unique strengths of ACW, and doesn’t join the Race to the Bottom that has trivialized other current affairs blogs.

  19. kme


    What you say may well be true (and this equally applies to commenters on other threads who’ve made similar comments about other issues) but it neglects to realise that if your aim is to understand how US interests can best be advanced by the US government, putting the “blame” on the other side is neither useful nor relevant. In other words, responding to an article along the lines of “We would be better off if our government had done X” with something like “We’d be even better off if the Russians hadn’t done Y!” is to miss the point.

    ie, I don’t think we’re here for fingerpointing to make ourselves feel better; rather , it’s to understand how we (ie., “the west”) could do things better.

  20. vas-sav (History)

    Isn’t it a plain case of tit for tat? It’s the least the Russians can do right now that could get the attention of the US and they do it.

    What I’d like to know though, is the Kremlin’s reaction to the alternative proposal of basing the European BMD on Aegis cruisers instead of Poland. Is that OK with the Russians? Or at least more acceptable-negociable?

  21. Gridlock (History)

    “Nor do I understand what you mean about Bagram and “nuclear capable bombers.” Any strip of concrete or pavement 5000 feet long can handle “nuclear capable bombers,” namely F-16’s with B-61’s.”

    Because the US would piss itself if some Tupolevs turned up in Havana, but nobody else is allowed to get upset when the USAF deploys B-61s wherever it goddam feels like it. I’m sure Cuba quite fancied the idea of having USSR strategic significance just the same as Turkey didn’t mind the Pershings (Minutemen? I’m too young…) but you didn’t see the world 6 minutes from death when the US ships arrived at Istanbul.

  22. Gridlock (History)

    Also – originally I saw numerous “people who should know” pointing out that great circle routes, launch-phase interception etc meant these interceptors would be useless against Russian launched ICBMs but pretty handy if Messrs Jong-Il or Ahmedinejad pushed the button. Is this now disproved, or is Russia getting all upset over nothing?

  23. FSB

    The funny thing — if you want to call it funny, perhaps ironic is a better term — is that the Russians would actually be gaining some useful military ability and/or local influence over Cuba, Venezuela, etc. in response to something futile (BMD) the US is doing in Europe.

    Please see the comments in the related post to see why BMD/AEGIS in Europe is a waste and counterproductive

  24. Anonymous

    Dear Mister Grotto,

    Russians are born to play zero-sum games. That will never change.

  25. Brad Lohaus

    kme — you really think the point is to figure out what “we” can do better rather than point fingers? Clearly you have a point that all sides have blame in this case, but it would seem like there are some downside risks in always blaming yourself for things. Since sometimes it might actually not be your fault, even if you didn’t help the situation.

  26. kme

    Brad – What I mean is that I don’t see that using a forum like this one for fingerpointing (whether justified or not) is likely to achieve anything other than possibly making one feel better. If your aim is to figure out how you could have influenced the situation to obtain a better outcome for yourself, you need to treat the external parties as something of a force of nature (albeit one that can be predicted and influenced to some degree).

    If all your schools collapse in an earthquake, you should look at improving your building codes for schools, rather than railing against the earthquake.

  27. Brad Lohaus

    I see your point. I just don’t think either of those things is the purpose of this blog. It’s about technical analysis, not blaming.

    The point I was trying to make is that if you take your logic to its extreme, you could end up in a world where it seems like it is beneficial to do anything someone else wants to make them feel better in the short-term, even if it is not in our long-term interests.

  28. kme

    I would say that there’s a certain amount of political and diplomatic analysis also.