Moscow paper claims Russian bomber crews visited Cuba

MOSCOW — The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported Thursday that crews from Russian strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons have surveyed sites in Cuba for possible refueling stopovers.

The newspaper reported on Monday that Russia was considering the move.

The Russian defense ministry said Thursday that there was no plan to deploy bombers to Cuba and called the earlier anonymous allegations carried by Izvestia "disinformation" and a "media hoax," according to state news service Interfax. However, Izvestia, which is controlled by Gazprom, a state-owned gas company that many consider a mouthpiece of Russia's ruling elite, didn't withdraw its initial report.

Although the White House called the Izvestia account "speculative," Gen. Norton Schwartz, the nominee to be Air Force chief of staff, said this week that the appearance of Russian nuclear-capable planes in Cuba would be "something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America."

Izvestia's latest account, which quoted unnamed defense ministry officials, said the crews' visit didn't mean that Russian bombers had landed on the island just south of Florida.

It wasn't immediately clear Thursday evening how to reconcile the report in Izvestia and the defense ministry statement. Many Russian analysts so far have regarded the escalating rhetoric as just that — verbal jousting between the U.S. and Russia over U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in two former Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe.

Adding to the confusion, former Cuban President Fidel Castro released a statement on Wednesday saying that the current president, his brother Raul, had done the right thing by maintaining "dignified silence" during the dustup. Castro didn't indicate whether the reports of plans for Russian bombers in Cuba, an echo of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were true.

Despite the Russian government's denunciation of the stories, it's unlikely that news media closely affiliated with the government would have reported them without government knowledge and acquiescence.

Another state news agency, RIA Novosti, carried the Izvestia story and added that: "At present, the Russian military is considering the possibility of establishing so-called 'jump-up' bases in various regions of the world to provide refueling and maintenance support for the patrolling bombers."

The RIA Novosti story also paraphrased Gen. of the Army Pyotr Deinekin, a former commander of the Russian Air Force, saying that the use of forward airfields in Latin America "would practically erase the time constraints for the Russian bombers and make their presence near the U.S. borders almost permanent." (It wasn't clear if RIA Novosti was repeating the general's remarks to Izvestia, which also quoted him.)

The flap over Cuba, and news on Tuesday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was in Russia to buy $1 billion worth of weapons systems and broker oil deals, come during a bitter disagreement between the United States and Russia over the Bush administration's plans to build a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The reports of Russian military activities in Cuba and Venezuela could be intended as an obvious counterpoint to U.S. military activities in the Czech Republic and Poland.

The Bush administration has said repeatedly that the missile defense system is intended as a defense against Iran. But Russian officials say the shield could be intended to neutralize Russia's nuclear missiles, the cornerstone of its strategic deterrent. Conventional Russian military forces are far less capable than their American counterparts.

Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, the former commander of the Russian strategic missiles forces headquarters, told Interfax Thursday that while the missile shield in its proposed form wouldn't pose a threat to Russia, there are worries that it could expand.

"Whether there will be 10 or 1,000 rockets is unclear," Yesin said, according to Interfax. "We are naturally concerned about the presence of strategic infrastructure near our borders."

Yesin said that if the U.S. shield is built, Russia might resume its Soviet-era program of developing mobile ballistic missiles. Yesin, now a senior leader of a government defense think tank, said that Russia also could deploy missile systems and bombers to the Kaliningrad region, which borders Poland.

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