(CBS/AP) Ailing Fidel Castro said Wednesday that Cuba's president was right to adopt a "dignified silence" over a Moscow newspaper report that Russia may send nuclear bombers to the island, and said Cuba doesn't owe any explanation to Washington about the story.
In a brief, cryptic essay posted on a government Web site Wednesday night, the 81-year-old former president neither confirmed nor denied the Monday report in Izvestia newspaper.
Moscow is angry about U.S. plans for missile-defense sites in eastern Europe and Izvestia cited a "highly placed" military aviation source as saying, "While they are deploying the anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, our long-range strategic aircraft already will be landing in Cuba." Izvestia said this apparently refers to long-range nuclear-capable bombers.
Izvestia points out that there would have to be a political decision on landing bombers in Cuba, and quoted the unnamed source as saying there have been such discussions.
Former Russian Air Force Commander-in-Chief Anatoly Kornukov told Russia's Interfax news agency Thursday that the country's "strategic bombers are entitled to use airfields in any country, including Cuba, as long as its leaders do not object."
A well informed military-diplomatic official in Moscow told CBS News Thursday that Russian strategic bombers "could use an airfield in Cuba for refueling during flights for air patrol over the Atlantic." The source spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic.
Kornukov's statement was made in response to remarks earlier in the week by the nominee for U.S. Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, who said a move by Moscow to position nuclear weapons on the Caribbean Island would cross "a red line for the United States of America".
The London-based AFX news wire quoted Schwartz as saying: "If they did I think we should stand strong and indicate that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States."
"The statement by Gen. Schwartz cannot be called other than inadequate and childish," Kornukov said, according to Interfax, which, like all Russian media, is closely monitored by the Kremlin. "Gen. Schwartz, being a professional, must know that missile carriers have the right to fly over neutral waters in any part of the world, which, by the way, is what U.S. bombers are doing as well."
Strategic bombers are entitled to use airfields in any country, including Cuba, as long as its leaders do not object.
Anatoly Kornukov, Former Russian Air Force Commander-in-Chief, quoted by Interfax
In Washington, U.S. State Department Acting Deputy spokesman Gonzalo R. Gallegos said that American officials had received no official confirmation from the Russian government about the newspaper report, and was unaware of any U.S. efforts to directly contact Moscow about it.
"We continue to continue to work with the Russians on this issue," Gallegos said Tuesday, referring to talks aimed at explaining the U.S. government's missile defense plan. "We have consistently made it clear to them that our proposed deployment of a limited missile defense system in Europe poses no threat to them or to their nuclear deterrent."
According to CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk, Russia may be using the report as another way to show its opposition to a missile defense system close to its borders.
“Although plans to begin a second 'Cuban Missile Crisis' were dispelled at the State Department, it is perfectly plausible that Russia would leak a report of Russian bombers to Cuba, even if it denies it later, in order to make the point about how it sees the U.S. plans for a missile defense system in eastern Europe,” said Falk.
“The next steps will be closely watched, because technology has changed significantly since 1962 and Washington would not risk allowing such a plan to move forward.
"The report is an indication, however, of how much the U.S. missile defense proposal has soured U.S.-Russian relations," Falk added, "and Castro's comments are a reflection that if any crisis occurred, he is still on the scene to deal with it."
While Castro said the president, his brother Raul Castro, was wise not to respond to the newspaper report, he did not make clear why he was commenting.
Fidel Castro also said Cuba is not obligated to offer the United States an explanation about the newspaper report, "nor ask for excuses or forgiveness."
Despite Cuba's one-time alliance with the former Soviet Union, it seems unlikely that Raul Castro would allow Russian bombers on the island and risk the ire of the U.S. government.
Raul Castro has been president only since February, securing a seamless transition from his brother, who ruled for nearly a half-century. He has repeatedly said he is willing to discuss the two countries' differences in talks held on equal terms with America's next president.
Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba during the height of the Cold War pushed the world to the brink of nuclear conflict on Oct. 22, 1962, after President John F. Kennedy announced their presence to the world. After a tense week of diplomacy, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev removed them.
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