When diplomats and other personnel at the newly reestablished U.S. Embassy in Havana began falling mysteriously ill late in 2016, suspicion immediately fell on hard-line elements in the Cuban government that were not eager to see a thaw in the long-frozen relationship across the tropical Florida Straits.
But that explanation did not line up well with nearly 60 years of experience with a stable – even ossified – communist regime. Power passed relatively uneventfully after the incapacity and death of Fidel Castro. Dissenters tended to defect and flee the island, rather than take active steps to oppose the government. Opposition was especially rare from dissenters within the regime itself. So as soon as Americans, followed by their Canadian counterparts, began reporting unexplained vertigo, headaches and hearing nonexistent noises, alternative answers were on the table as well.
A research team led by doctors at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia last year concluded that “environmental exposure to neurotoxins,” most likely pesticides, could have been the source. Their report was funded by Global Affairs Canada, the nation’s diplomatic service. The governmental department faces a lawsuit by 15 Canadian diplomats and family members, who claim that the government hid information, downplayed risks and failed to protect them. The authors of the report said Global Affairs Canada had no role in their study’s design or conclusions.
It is fair to say that this pesticide theory has not gained traction. Apart from the specificity of the victims in Havana, symptoms of “Havana syndrome” have been reported in the ensuing years by U.S. diplomats, intelligence officers and other officials while working in China, Russia and even the United States. This week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine publicly released a report funded by the State Department that concluded the unexplained symptoms are the likely result of “directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy.” In other words, the individuals and their immediate households were essentially targeted by someone wielding a ray gun.
But who was that someone? What type of weapon did they use? And why did they carry out the attacks, if in fact that is what happened?
Some accounts, including a lengthy article published in GQ this fall, point the finger at Russia’s intelligence services. GQ writer Julia Ioffe got former CIA operative Marc Polymeropoulos to go on record describing his own sudden illness during a Moscow visit (conducted with the full knowledge, albeit disapproval, of the Kremlin’s spy agencies) in 2017. He also discussed the lingering, debilitating headaches and other symptoms that have since forced him to take early retirement. Polymeropoulos took note of a growing body of research and circumstantial information pointing toward microwave radiation as the vehicle for the apparent assaults. According to GQ, he became convinced that Russia was responsible.
The Trump administration has not leveled any such accusation at Moscow. Speculation in GQ and elsewhere in the press has attributed this to President Donald Trump’s purported reluctance to anger Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This might be the case for any number of reasons. Some potential motivations rest on unflattering views of Trump’s personality and psyche. But the evidence linking Russia to these illnesses is also hardly conclusive. We can’t infer that Russia shot someone just because someone got shot and Russia has guns. Lots of people get shot, and lots of people have guns.
But the Russia explanation certainly sounds a lot more plausible than the rebellion-in-Havana’s-ranks theory. Russia has a huge financial and strategic investment in the Havana regime; it would hardly welcome a post-Castro move to reestablish Cuba among the Western Hemisphere’s Latin American democracies. There are very good reasons for America to keep the Havana government at arm’s length, but that distance also serves Moscow’s interests. The apparent assaults in Havana have led both Washington and Ottawa to keep diplomats’ families out of the country. That, plus the Trump administration’s general sympathy toward the anti-communist Cuban diaspora, have maintained the chill at the edge of the Caribbean.
The growing distance between the American and Chinese governments also benefits Moscow, which has become something of an economic colony of Beijing. Russia helps sate China’s vast demand for raw materials. In turn, the Chinese supply Russia with hard currency that is especially important when the markets for oil and gas, Russia’s main exports to the West, are depressed. This does not mean some non-Russian party might have been experimenting with similar tools when U.S. consular officials in Guangzhou, a city near Hong Kong, began experiencing brain injury and various symptoms in 2018. Other instances have been reported in Taiwan and Australia, both places where China’s strategic interest is considerably greater than Russia’s.
Russia has accumulated a lot of grievances against the United States since the end of the Cold War, at least from Russia’s perspective. Washington brushed aside Moscow’s strategic concerns by expanding NATO membership directly to Russia’s own borders when it admitted Poland and the formerly Soviet Baltic states. It infuriated Moscow by forcing Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, to abandon its support of ethnic Serb forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It humiliatingly illustrated Russia’s post-Soviet helplessness by supporting the secession of Kosovo from Serbia. All this would have been relentlessly galling to the former Soviet security establishment, which saw one of its own take charge with Putin’s accession to power 20 years ago.
Since then, Moscow has consistently sought to restore its sway over the countries that surround it. At the same time, it has suppressed domestic opposition and sought to drive wedges between Washington and allied and nonallied countries alike. A weaker Washington, seen in the post-Soviet Russian experience, means a stronger Russia.
Post-Soviet Russia’s secret services have little use for Cold War niceties, such as refraining from targeting one another’s operatives or from carrying out shootings and poisonings in Western capitals (although the latter was not unknown to the Soviets). If they don’t like someone, they don’t hesitate to attack or eliminate them. This can be a murder on a Moscow street, or a poisoning aboard a domestic flight or in a small town in southern England. It is not far-fetched to believe they might deploy radio frequency weapons to attack Americans and others. But belief, of course, is not proof.
One benefit of our regular transfers of power between parties is that we periodically bring fresh eyes to reexamine longstanding problems. The American relationship with Russia has been a problem of varying intensity for roughly a century. Bringing in a fresh team to look at it, even if that team will have many players from the one that preceded Trump’s, is not the worst thing that could happen right now.