- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

HAVANA Russia is ready to close its biggest covert military outpost abroad, an electronic listening post near here, burying a bone of contention between Moscow and Washington, and dealing Cuba's fragile economy a serious blow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier Russia had decided to shut down the radar base in Lourdes, Cuba, just 10 months after Mr. Putin affirmed on an official visit to Cuba that Moscow would keep it up and running.

Mr. Putin stressed the decision to withdraw the radar base did not mean Russia was planning to scale down its cooperation with Cuba, a Soviet satellite during the Cold War.

President Bush said yesterday that he welcomed the move.

The Cuban government called Moscow's decision to withdraw its radar base from Cuba unacceptable and that bilateral negotiations on the future of the base should continue.

Havana said in an official statement that it was in "total disagreement" with Moscow's decision to shut the base at Lourdes.

"The negotiations we have been having relating to the Lourdes electronic-monitoring center have not yet finished," the Cuban government said in its statement.

It was not clear what the economic fallout would be for Cuba. But aside from the loss of intelligence for Havana, "at this time and in these circumstances, it is bad news for Cuba" economically, said one Western diplomat privately.

Slumping international tourism already is hurting Cuba. Prices for key exports nickel and sugar remain weak, while Havana depends on hard-currency earnings from tourism the main pillar of its economy to bankroll its budget.

For another diplomat here, the news "confirms at the same time the end of the Russian military presence in Cuba and increasing cooperation between Washington and Moscow."

Mr. Putin cited financial reasons for the decision to dismantle the listening station "this year," according to Russian Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin.

"It costs $200 million a year in rent to Cuba. For that amount, we can buy and launch 20 military satellites into space," Mr. Kvashnin said of Mr. Putin's decision.

Around 1,500 Russian engineers, technicians and soldiers currently observe submarine activity from the base at a total cost of $300 million a year to Russia, according to military experts.

Washington says Moscow is using the facilities to spy on the United States, and repeatedly had warned of sanctions if the base were not shut.

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