. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Flying in Face of Elite

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After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Russia and the United States have obviously become closer than they were before. But will this alliance hold? Is this a truly long-term affair, or just a marriage of convenience for the purpose of fighting a common enemy in Afghanistan?

It seems that President Vladimir Putin may be indeed trying to change Russia's long-term foreign and defense outlook. Putin has announced he is closing one of the last vestiges of Russian global might: a strategically important eavesdropping outpost in Cuba.

Russian military intelligence, or GRU, is today still keeping a special communications brigade of some 1,600 men in Cuba, despite the Cold War being over for more than a decade. This brigade intercepts hundreds of millions of radio, telephone and other electronic communications — government and private — from the United States. The staff of the brigade works to decipher and sort out important information from the mass of data gathered.

The GRU has other electronic listening posts on Russian territory. Planes and satellites also gather electronic intelligence data. However, the Cuban base was always considered a jewel in the crown of Russian military intelligence. Satellites simply cannot gather all the important signals. The United States, with the most advanced electronic eavesdropping program in the world, does not rely fully on satellites.

Last spring, a mid-air collision between a U.S. spyplane and a Chinese fighter caused a serious international crisis. But the United States still continues to fly electronic intelligence-gathering missions to foreign shores and keeps listening posts in foreign countries.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military secured the ongoing use of the base in Cuba. The lease cost $200 million a year, but a deputy defense minister told me in 1993 that this was a sound investment. The Cuban base gathered not only military-related data, but also lots of commercial and private secrets. Moreover, the $200 million was paid not in cash, but in barter: military equipment, spare parts for Soviet-made armaments, oil, etc. Some of these barter goods could only be sold to other customers as scrap.

Russia was not bound to pay any rent until 2004 for its naval and air base in Vietnam, which will be closed in January 2002, at the same time as the base in Cuba. The official Kremlin spin that the overseas bases are being closed to economize and free up more money for other defense projects is not taken seriously by anyone in Moscow. In 2000, Russia reportedly had a trade surplus of some $46 billion. The Kremlin could surely find the money to pay for the Cuban base, if it really wanted to.

The Cuban government, which received some shared intelligence information, has strongly protested the closure of the Russian eavesdropping installation and has accused Moscow of trying to appease Washington. Many influential figures in Moscow are also openly questioning Putin's decision.

Military leaders, diplomats from the Foreign Ministry and people connected to the intelligence community are for the first time freely challenging Putin's decisions.

There is open talk of "grave mistakes" made by Putin in his attempt to move closer to the West, of the Kremlin unilaterally surrendering strategic assets, and of sacrificing Russia's true national interests in a fatal attempt to integrate with the corrupt West.

The opposition is almost unanimous and Putin's authority may be challenged even more brazenly, if, as it has been rumored, Moscow and Washington are on the verge of finding a formula to jointly abandon or seriously modify the 1972 ABM Treaty, in order to allow the United States to develop missile defense.

If Putin, along with the base in Cuba, abandons the ABM Treaty and with it Moscow's opposition to NATO enlargement, while continuing to support the war on terrorism, Russia may indeed become a close long-term ally of the West. Ongoing economic reforms that have already drastically improved the local business environment make Russia ready to undergo a much needed revolution of modernization by absorbing a lot of Western capital and technologies.

To make this come about, Putin will have to replace a large part of his elite and intimidate the rest into total submission.

Show trials, arrests and the ouster of high officials are inevitable, as has happened many times before in Russia when the country made a sudden U-turn and the existing elite was dismissed.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.