Just as the United States has been exerting its influence with Russia’s neighbors in the East, Russia has been following China’s lead into the Americas by fostering partnerships with Latin American countries.

 

A soldier is silhouetted against the early morning sky during the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 30, 2016. Photo: AP

As the U.S. begins establishing diplomatic relationships with Cuba, public attention has been focused on whether the true benefactors are the Cuban people or the government of its leader Raúl Castro. However, there has been little attention given to the geopolitical drivers of the U.S. controversial attempt to lift an embargo against the Latin American country that has been actively engaging in human rights violations for over 50 year. The U.S. newfound interest in Cuba comes at a time of increased political tensions with Russia, layered with a resurgence of Russian-Cuban diplomacy, which leaves Washington in a particularly unattractive geopolitical position.

The United States and Russia have been experiencing heightened political and economic tension over the last decade. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin assumed presidency in 1999, the Kremlin has become more assertive in international affairs, taking a strong geopolitical stance to protect and promote its position as the ambitious heir of the Soviet Union. This mission has led to a volatile relationship with the United States, which has spent the last decade redefining its post-hegemonic position in the new geopolitical arena.

Also read: "What Obama's historic visit to Cuba means for Russia"

In the process of achieving a dominant role in this new world order, Russia has grown weary of the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, which asserts America's interests in the region while encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence. A recent example of Russia’s assertive policy was manifested in the conflict over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin’s involvement in Syria, a highly publicized international affair, has provided Russia with a much coveted seat in the decision making table throughout the conflict. Both of these extreme and unprecedented cases has forced the United States to develop a cautious attitude towards its geopolitical relationship with Russia.

Just as the United States has been exerting its influence with Russia’s neighbors in the East, Russia has been following China’s lead into the Americas by fostering partnerships with Latin American countries. Since 2008, Russia has been systematically building relationships with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, among other Latin American countries, with the goal of establishing geopolitical and economic ties with the U.S. neighbors. Although this can be chalked up to simple politics, it becomes a potential threat for the United States when Russia is trying to strengthen its relationship with Cuba, a country with over 50 years of well documented conflict with the United States.

The partnership between Cuba and the Soviet Union kept Cuba afloat throughout most of the twentieth century. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Kremlin stopped providing economic support for the island. This led Cuba into the well known “special period”, which left it without access to imports, capital, or even basic necessities.

Since then, Putin has been trying to repair the strained relationship with Cuba in hopes of forming an alliance with the island. In 2008, Russia was the first country to provide Cuba with aid after three hurricanes left the country in shambles.

In 2009, Cuba signed a deal that allowed Russia to engage in oil exploration across the Gulf of Mexico. Russia also agreed to loan Cuba $150 million to buy construction and agriculture equipment to help rebuild struggling sectors. More recently, in 2014, Russia wrote off the majority of Cuba’s $32 billion debt to Russia. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Cuba, Russia agreed to loan Cuba another $1.4 billion to help them upgrade two massive power plants.

Outside of financial assistance, the two countries also support each other culturally and militarily. Russia has invested into building museums in Cuba, expanding Russian influence in the island, while Cuba celebrated Russian airstrikes in Syria, displaying a sense of comrade between the two nations. Both Cuba and Russia have been negatively affected by the U.S. economic sanctions against their countries, which has helped establish common cultural and patriotic ground between both countries.

As tensions between Russia and the United States begin to escalate, and Russia begins to establish a partnership with Cuba, the United States has begun taking preemptive actions to prevent a potential opponent from asserting influence in its own backyard.

Even though the United States has maintained an embargo against Cuba for over 50 years, Washington has been taking systematic steps to reestablish diplomatic relations with the island since 2014. Initially, the embargo was part of the U.S. fight to limit the influence of communism across the world, a reason that has become a non-issue after the fall of both the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall over 25 years ago.

Also read: "Did Russia lose Cuba to the Americans?"

Although other arguments exist for why the United States has maintained an embargo against Havana (mostly centered around perennial human rights violations), not much has changed in the island, which could prompt a resurgence of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

Washington has been leading the path to restore its relationship with Havana, without requiring Cuba to make any changes to its economic or political model, or even asking for its commitment to cease its human rights abuse, which was the underlying reason for the embargo in the first place. According to the White House, the U.S. is simply trying something different in hopes that Cuba changes towards a better path.

Although this makes good for headlines and garners support from both the United States and Cuba’s population, pointing to altruism without considering the geopolitical drivers behind diplomatic decisions limits our appreciation for the United States’ geopolitical strategy.

Cuba’s newfound relationship with Russia, along with the heightened level of conflict between Russia and the United States, however, could point to a major incentive for the United States seeking diplomatic relationships with Cuba, without requiring major concessions on Cuba’s end.

By establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, the United States is preventing Russia from becoming Cuba’s new trading partner, and incidentally asserting influence in a country that is only 90 miles away from U.S. soil. Cuba’s need for new trading partners was made obvious after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013. As Russia was beginning to take lead in filling Venezuela’s role in Cuba, the United States has boldly stepped in to assure that Russian influence is limited in the island.

Officially, the Kremlin has applauded this move towards US-Cuba diplomacy. The majority of the United States also agrees that establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is the right thing to do, specifically for the betterment of the Cuban population. But in this case, the real winner is the United States, who prevented Russian influence in a neighboring country and, potentially, another repeat of the Cuban missile crisis.

Also read: "Cuba still matters for Russia (but not for the reason you think)"

The United States and Russia are both competing to gain a foothold in Cuba, and the United States is using its proximity and cultural alliances to ensure that the U.S. maintains the lead, or at the very minimum a presence, in this geopolitical race. At the very least, Washington's presence is sufficient to protect the U.S. from any potential, yet preventable, Russian aggression, and justifies the American decisiveness in reestablishing relations with Cuba, regardless of their lack of concessions.

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