(Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday denied reports that Russia plans to reopen a Soviet-era base in Cuba from which it once spied on the United States.
A Russian security source said on Wednesday that Russia had reached a provisional agreement with Cuba to reopen the Lourdes listening post, which Putin closed in 2001. The source repeated the contents of a report that first appeared in the Russian daily Kommersant. [ID:nL6N0PR42W]
But speaking from Brasilia, the latest stop on a Latin American tour and site of a summit of BRICS emerging market leaders, Putin denied the report and said Russia had no plans to resume the Lourdes signals intelligence facility.
"Russia is capable of fulfilling the defense capacity tasks without this component (Lourdes)," he said in comments carried by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency.
The report came five days after Putin visited Havana and as U.S.-Russian relations have reached a post-Cold War low due to the crisis in Ukraine.
While visiting Cuba, the Russian leader pledged to help revive its former Cold War-era ally's offshore oil exploration. [ID:nL2N0PM1MP] Since the Ukraine crisis worsened in February, the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia and Moscow has tried to bolster ties with other countries, including in Asia and Latin America, to ensure Russia is not isolated.
Cuba has remained silent on the report about the spy post. Such a provocation would run counter to an effort by Cuban President Raul Castro to reduce tensions with the United States and build a more pragmatic relationship.
In Washington, the State Department declined comment on Wednesday, noting there had been no formal announcement from Moscow. Other U.S. officials were skeptical, questioning whether Russia would go through with what would be an expensive initiative with possible limited returns. The base at Lourdes, about 250 km (150 miles) from the U.S. coast, was created in 1964 after the Cuban missile crisis. It monitored satellite communications and signals from and to submarines and ships.
When they closed the base, the Russians said it was a "goodwill gesture" toward Washington, although many U.S. officials at the time believed Moscow was really concerned about costs. One official, who asked not to be named, called Russian statements and news reports about the project "propaganda."
At the height of the Cold War, the base at Lourdes, just south of the Cuban capital, Havana, had up to 3,000 personnel and was the Soviets' biggest center operated abroad for gathering intelligence from radio signals.
The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 began after Moscow began placing Soviet nuclear weapons on the island, and is widely regarded as the moment in the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union came closest to a nuclear confrontation.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, editing by G Crosse)