Russia won’t rule out military deployment to Cuba, Venezuela

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Originally published in AP News.

Russia on Thursday sharply raised the stakes in its dispute with the West over Ukraine, with a top diplomat refusing to rule out a Russian military deployment to Cuba and Venezuela if tensions with the United States mount.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation in Monday’s talks with the U.S. in Geneva, said he could “neither confirm nor exclude” the possibility of Russia sending military assets to Cuba and Venezuela if the talks fail and U.S. pressure on Russia mounts.

The Russia-U.S. negotiations in Geneva and a subsequent NATO-Russia meeting failed to narrow the gap on Moscow’s security demands amid a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine. While Moscow demanded a halt to NATO expansion, Washington and its allies firmly rejected that as a nonstarter.

Speaking in an interview with Russian RTVI TV, Ryabkov noted that “it all depends on the action by our U.S. counterparts,” pointing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning that Moscow could take military-technical measures if the U.S. provokes the Kremlin and turns up military pressure on it.

While voicing concern that NATO could potentially use Ukrainian territory for the deployment of missiles capable of reaching Moscow in just five minutes, Putin has noted that Russian warships armed with the latest Zircon hypersonic cruise missile would give Russia a similar capability if deployed in neutral waters.

Zircon, which Putin said flies at nine times the speed of sound to a range of more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), is hard to intercept and could be fitted with conventional or nuclear warheads. It’s set to be commissioned by the Russian navy later this year and installed aboard its frigates and submarines.

Ryabkov’s statement followed his comments last month comparing the current tensions over Ukraine with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — when the Soviet Union deployed missiles to Cuba and the U.S. imposed a naval blockade of the island. That crisis ended after U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed Moscow would withdraw its missiles in exchange for Washington’s pledge not to invade Cuba and the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey.

Soon after his first election in 2000, Putin ordered the closure of a Soviet-built military surveillance facility in Cuba as he sought to improve ties with Washington. Moscow has intensified contacts with Cuba in recent years as tensions with the U.S. and its allies mounted.

In December 2018, Russia briefly dispatched a pair of its nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela in a show of support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro amid Western pressure.

Ryabkov said a refusal by the U.S. and its allies to consider the key Russian demand for guarantees against the alliance’s expansion to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations makes it hard to discuss such issues as arms control and confidence-building steps that Washington says it’s ready to negotiate.

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