- - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Months before President Obama announced on Wednesday that he is seeking to do away with decades of U.S. economic sanctions against the communist regime in Cuba, Russia concluded a security deal with Havana aimed at bolstering intelligence and military ties to the island dictatorship.

The Russia-Cuba agreement was announced May 16 when a memorandum was signed in Moscow establishing a joint working group between Russia’s Security Council and the Cuban Commission for National Security and Defense.

The security agreement comes amid fresh U.S. intelligence agency concerns that Russia is taking steps to follow through on plans to conduct strategic nuclear bomber flights over the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, possibly with the help of Cuba and Venezuela.

Russian official recently held discussions with both governments about the use of airfields for Russia’s Tu-95 nuclear capable bombers, known as the Bear H. The bombers have been conducting large numbers of threatening flights near U.S. coasts in recent months.

Additionally, there are indications that Venezuela for the past several years has been extending the main runway at the Maiquetia international airport near Caracas. U.S. officials believe the extension will allow Bear Hs, possibly equipped with nuclear-armed cruise missiles, to use the airfield.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated Nov. 12 that Russia would begin sending long-range bombers to the Gulf. “We have to maintain [Russia’s] military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico,” he said, noting strategic bombers would be dispatched to the region for “drills.”

SEE ALSO: Obama hails ‘new chapter’ in diplomatic relations with Cuba

Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers visited Venezuela last year. Propeller-driven Tu-95 Bear Hs were unable to land in Venezuela over concerns the aircraft did not have enough runway to take off. The extended runway, when completed, will be long enough, said defense officials familiar with intelligence reports.

The Russia-Cuba security agreement reached in May was announced by Nikolai Patrushev, former director of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and currently secretary of the Security Council, the key arm of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The situation in the world is changing fast and it is dynamic. That’s why we will need the ability to react to it promptly,” Mr. Patrushev told reporters May 16 in Moscow.

The Cuban delegation to Moscow at the time was headed by Col. Alejandro Castro, an Interior Ministry officer and son of current Cuban leader Raul Castro.

In July, Russian news outlets reported that Cuba had agreed to re-open the Soviet-era electronic listening post at Lourdes, Cuba. The facility, which spied on U.S. communications in the southern United States, was closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Mr. Putin later denied the spy post was being reopened.

Mr. Patrushev is Moscow’s point man for relations with Latin American states. In 2008, he traveled to Venezuela for talks with then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the time Russian and Venezuelan navy ships conducted joint exercises. Russia has supplied military equipment to the Venezuelan military.

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MDA chief on missile defense priorities

Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, outlined U.S. priorities aimed at improving the current limited network of defenses over the next several years in a speech Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

According to Adm. Syring, the priorities include increasing the number of Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) from 33 now in Alaska and California to 44 in the next three years; improving the reliability of the sensors used to zero in on incoming warheads; developing and testing new GBIs equipped with an advanced kill vehicle; and deploying a more powerful long-range radar that can better discriminate between incoming warheads and decoys or chaff used to thwart missile defense sensors.

The three-star admiral said he is “very confident” the system of ground- and sea-based interceptors can protect the country from missile strikes from North Korea or Iran, Sea Power magazine reported.

Adm. Syring, like others in the administration, sought to play down the missile defense network as designed for limited missile attacks and not from a large-scale strike from Russia’s long-range missiles.

He also said current plans for missile defense modernization have not been affected by increasingly hostile relations with Russia, which currently is engaged in a large-scale nuclear modernization programs.

“Our policy hasn’t deviated at all. Our focus remains the regional threats,” he said.

Adm. Syring made no mention of using missile defenses against future Chinese missile attacks, and did not mention the Chinese Defense Ministry’s confirmation last week that China had conducted a third flight test of a new hypersonic glide vehicle known by the Pentagon as the Wu-14.

The system is being designed to deliver a nuclear warhead through U.S. missile defenses which are currently designed to counter only ballistic targets — those whose trajectory can be easily plotted and which do not maneuver like the high-speed Wu-14.

Rick Lehner, a Missile Defense Agency spokesman, declined to comment on the hypersonic strike vehicle test.

“Our missile defense system is designed to defend against ballistic missile threats from countries like North Korea and Iran, both of whom continue to develop advanced ballistic missile weapon delivery systems,” he said.

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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