Amidst the ongoing differences between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the Kremlin seems to be falling behind its historic ally Cuba in attracting positive interest from the West.

Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, blocked from view by a Cuban national flag, wave as they watch the May Day parade at Revolution Square, in Havana, Cuba, May 1, 2015. Photo: AP Photo / Ramon Espinosa

Socialist Cuba, until recently considered a kind of Jurassic Park, has begun to woo foreign investors. Meanwhile, Russia’s financial and economic isolation is increasing, even in Europe. Who could have imagined such a development back at the turn of the new millennium?

France revives its interest in Cuba

French President Francois Hollande has just returned from an unprecedented visit to Cuba. It was the first time that the Island of Freedom had hosted the incumbent of the Elysee Palace, either before or after the Cuban revolution of 1959.

Hollande’s mission was unequivocal: Cuba is France’s main interest in the Caribbean, and Paris intends to play a prominent part in renewing European ties with the government of Raul Castro, a role that previously belonged to Spain.

It is also revealing that during his visit Hollande paid tribute to the Cuban patriarch, 88-year-old Fidel Castro, who left the helm in 2006, but continues to exert a great influence on the country’s politics.

The French president was accompanied on his trip by the heads of the country’s largest private companies, including Total, Air France, Accor and Orange.

France clearly intends to take the lead not only in normalizing political relations with Havana, but also in developing Cuba’s economy. After more than half a century of Castro’s authoritarian and arbitrary regime, large swathes of the island’s economy are paralyzed. The exceptions are tourism (fueled by Spaniards and Mexicans) and the nickel industry (under the control of Canada).

But there are other, equally promising industries on offer. Hollande’s visit saw the signing of an important contract for Cuba, under which Total was granted the right to explore and develop oil reserves offshore Cuba. These reserves are said to contain 20-22 billion barrels of oil.

Officially, Russia’s Zarubezhneft and Venezuela’s Petroleos de Venezuela are also licensed to explore on the Cuban shelf. But Russian oil companies are understandably wary. During the Soviet era, when potential drilling zones were located after two decades of prospecting for oil off Cuba’s coast, Havana transferred all the data to Mexican companies.

Venezuelan oilmen have even less chance of partaking in the development of the Cuban shelf due to the severe financial and economic crisis back home. They cannot even stabilize oil production in their own country, which has some of the largest oil reserves in the world.

Trade between France and Cuba is relatively small — worth roughly 180 million euros a year, less than Havana’s turnover with Spain, Italy and even the Netherlands.

However, the dynamics of Cuba’s relations with the Old World could quickly change. European companies, like those European countries that tried to develop relations with the island despite the U.S. embargo, as well as America’s traditional allies, are eyeing the Cuban “Klondike” with relish.

Recently the British government announced its intention to invest $400 million in the Cuban economy, mainly in agriculture, transport infrastructure and new golf courses.

Given the heightened interest in Cuba, U.S. companies are beginning to demand ever more vocally that Congress lift its half-century economic embargo. They have an ally in U.S. President Barack Obama, who through a White House spokesperson told the nation that he intends to rapidly restore diplomatic ties, and plans to visit Havana before he leaves office in January 2017.

What a contrast between the attitude of the world’s big players to Cuba — until quite recently regarded as a Cold War relic — and to Russia, which more than two decades ago commanded the whole world’s attention, but today remains in the spotlight only for its policy in Ukraine.

Putin and Kerry

One of the most talked-about topics in recent days was the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the former’s residence in Sochi, during which they discussed the “live” issues of Ukraine, Syria and Yemen. However, the meeting is not confirmation that the United States and Russia are ready for dialogue.

The Kremlin is issuing clear signals that it will await the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in 2016 before trying to reset relations, as evidenced by an interview with Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, for U.S. TV station NBC News.

“We do want to believe that whoever is elected as a new American president will [work] for a cure in our bilateral relations,” Peskov said. “We will respect your choice and we will welcome any slightest sympathy toward our bilateral relations.”

In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, the question is who will that choice be? Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and the likely Democratic presidential candidate? Or another favorite, Republican candidate Jeb Bush, younger brother of the previous U.S. president, who left America a dubious political legacy? Any talk of a post-2016 reset is premature.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talking near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Garden on May 10. Photo: RIA Novosti

Merkel’s visit to Russia is no game-changer

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a creative diplomatic maneuver, arrived in Moscow not on May 9 (to avoid attending the 70th anniversary of Victory Day and showing solidarity with the Russian government, which, according to Germany, is the aggressor in the conflict with neighboring Ukraine), but on May 10, whereupon she visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and paid tribute to the Soviet people, who suffered the greatest losses in the Second World War at the hands of Nazi Germany.

However, as before, it is premature to speak of a breakthrough in Russian-German relations after Merkel’s recent visit, as evidenced by the joint press conference held by the two leaders. The German chancellor clearly disagreed with her Russian colleague on many issues.

“Great expectations have been placed on us. And with my visit today, I wanted to show that we are working together with Russia, and not against it,” Merkel said. “[But] the criminal and illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as the military actions in Ukraine, has dealt a serious blow to this cooperation [between Russia and Germany]... The annexation of Crimea is a threat to the European peaceful order.”

Merkel’s most visible signs of disagreement came when Putin praised the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, thereby renouncing his own statement of ten years ago when he categorically declared that the pact with the Nazis could not be condoned. Whereas Putin stated that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been a forced measure, the Soviet Union’s response to the Munich Agreement of 1938, which had left the country facing Germany alone, Merkel drew attention to the secret protocol to carve up Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, describing the policy as “unlawful.”

Russia is losing allies in Europe?

Even Moscow’s most faithful allies are beginning to stray. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic has stated that it will be difficult to run the proposed Turkish Stream pipeline through Serbia. True, that very same day Nikolic tried to disclaim his statement, but with little success, since before that he had said bluntly: “Belgrade does not intend to receive gas from this pipeline.”

The Serbian president once again lamented Russia’s decision to abandon South Stream, which had been earmarked as a key component of his country’s energy sector. He also stated that although Serbia did not agree with the European Union’s sanctions against Russia, as a future EU member it would be obliged to abide by the common foreign policy of the organization.

That being the case, the words of Czech President Milos Zeman, who asserts (without naming names) that an increasing number of European countries would like to lift the economic sanctions against Russia, offer little comfort. It is clear to any unbiased observer that the sanctions will be lifted only when a comprehensive settlement is reached in southeastern Ukraine. And given the belligerent disposition of both Kiev and the Moscow-backed breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the chances of achieving such a settlement are slim indeed.

Cuba and Russia: An historic choice

In this context, Putin’s meeting with Cuban leader Raul Castro at the 70th anniversary of Victory Day looks like a historical paradox. Some prominent Russian politicians and political analysts had hitherto expressed concern over whether Cuba would remain a loyal ally of Moscow after the normalization of relations with the United States.

“Castro reassures Putin” was the headline of popular online newspaper The same sentiment, albeit in a slightly more veiled form, was expressed by Boris Shmelev, head of the Center for Political Research of the Institute of Economics under the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In his opinion, Raul Castro visited Moscow to “dot the i’s and cross the t’s and to make it clear to the Kremlin that despite the importance of developing cooperation with the United States, Cuba is still very much interested in developing cooperation with Russia.”

It is almost comical that the leader of a small island country, for decades living off Moscow’s largesse, should seemingly need to make a symbolic visit to reassure the Russian president that Cuba has not gone anywhere and will continue to cooperate with Russia. However, the Cuban leader’s apparent desire to work closely with Russia should be carefully scrutinized. After all, Russia is in no condition to drag Cuba out of the economic mire, whereas the U.S. and EU majors are.

The historical paradox lies in the fact that thanks to the poverty and backwardness of one of the last remaining “development frontiers,” it is Cuba that now has the right to decide who to welcome and who to cold-shoulder. If this trends continues, then who knows, maybe one day North Korea will be more attractive to foreign investors than Russia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.