2015 was a tough year for Putin.
Turkey shot down a Russian jet over allegations of territorial breaches.
The United States together with the European Council prolonged economic sanctions against Russia until the 31st of July, 2016 over their illegal annexation of Crimea.
Oil prices fell over 30% to $30 a barrel, sending the fossil fuel-dependent Russian economy into a free-fall.
Russian troops had to be deployed to Syria to preserve the current pro-Kremlin government there from being deposed by Western-backed rebels.
Ukraine signed a broad agreement of cooperation with the European Union, the same deal whose reversal set off off a crisis in the nation and ultimately led Putin to seize Crimea.
A falling ruble has begun to be felt in the form of civil unrest. Demonstrations by holders of foreign currency mortgages are taking place. Some long distance truckers are refusing to pay a new road tax imposed, and workers across Russia have started to protest unpaid wages through various strikes.
Russia is essentially fighting with everyone; fighting with North America; no friendship with Australia; Japan, too. China’s already lukewarm relationship has become very difficult. With Turkey they are practically at war, and there are practically no friends left in Europe.
Rubbing salt on these wounds, Obama has been steadily gaining ground on his proposal to warm up relations with Cuba, and has even announced the first trip by a sitting US president to the island in more than 80 years.
This is pretty significant. From a historical perspective any type of engagement between the old cold-war rivals is bound to inspire headlines, but I am referring to the awkward third wheel role that inevitably falls on the Russians.
Understanding the role that Cuba plays in Kremlin politics is key. With a failing economy and an increasingly isolated Russia, all Putin really has are his outstanding popularity ratings at home. Popularity ratings which have been bolstered by appealing to the patriotic nature of the average Russian. There’s a public value for Putin maintaining a close relationship with the Cubans, in the portrayed ability to project power and authority in the U.S. sphere of influence. It is also worth mentioning that around 55,000 people of Russian descent live in Cuba.
Putin has openly indicated that he has no intention of losing Cuba to Washington without a fight.
In July 2014, Vladimir Putin visited Cuba, where he touted a decision to wipe clean 90 percent of the island’s $35 billion debt to Moscow and announced deals to invest in Cuba’s offshore oil industry.
On January 20, 2015 just as the Americans were due to arrive for big talks with Cuban officials, the first high-level talks held in Cuba since the Carter administration, a Russian spy ship docked in central Havana, You know………just to kill the mood a little bit.
For bragging rights at home, Putin has provisionally agreed to re-open a major Cold War listening post on Cuba that was used to spy on the United States. Base Lourdes. Lourdes gave the Soviet Union eyes in the whole of the western hemisphere. For Russia, which wants to reclaim its former superpower status and a place in the international community, it would be no less valuable than it was for the USSR. In other words, Russians are bolstered by the idea that the base would strengthen Russia’s global position.
For those of us wondering what is going to be the conclusion of this three-party dance, the next important date to follow is this upcoming Monday when President Barack Obama makes his historic trip to Cuba. The US president keenly understands that the entire World will be watching, and with no more elections to run, it is very reasonable to expect some unexpected and even shocking announcements.
One thing is for sure: Cuba stands to benefit the most as Russia and the United States both vie for its attention.