Russian nuclear submarine, frigate arrive in Cuba

Published June 13, 2024
A Russian nuclear-powered submarine, part of a naval detachment visiting Cuba, docks at Havana harbour, on Wednesday.—AFP
A Russian nuclear-powered submarine, part of a naval detachment visiting Cuba, docks at Havana harbour, on Wednesday.—AFP

HAVANA: A Russian navy frigate and a nuclear-powered submarine churned into Havana harbour on Wednesday, a stopover the US and Cuba said posed no threat, but which was widely seen as a Russian show of force as tensions rise over the Ukraine war.

Curious onlookers, fishermen and police lined the Malecon seafront boulevard under grey skies to welcome the ships as they passed the 400-year-old Morro castle at the harbour’s entrance.

Cuba — a long-time ally of Russia — saluted the ships’ arrival with cannon fire from the harbour, while Russian diplomats waved small Russian flags and took selfies as the vessels passed the harbour’s historic fortresses.

The Admiral Gorshkov frigate, and later the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, half submerged with its crew on deck, were accompanied by a tugboat and fuel ship that had arrived earlier in the morning.

The four Russian vessels sailed to Cuba on Wednesday after conducting “high-precision missile weapons” training in the Atlantic Ocean, Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday. The submarine and frigate carry Zircon hypersonic missiles, Kalibr cruise missiles and Onyx anti-ship missiles, the ministry said.

Cuba said last week that the visit was standard practice by naval vessels from countries friendly to Havana. The communist-run government’s foreign ministry said the fleet carried no nuclear weapons, something echoed by US officials.

The US has been monitoring the Russian vessels as they skirted the nearby Florida coast, but has said they pose no threat. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday such naval exercises were routine.

“We have seen this kind of thing before and we expect to see this kind of thing again, and I’m not going to read into it any particular motives,” Sullivan said. He added that there was no evidence of Russia transferring any missiles to Cuba, but the US would remain vigilant. “We do not expect anything like that to occur.”

Power play

Havana is just 100 miles from Key West, Florida, home to a US Naval Air Station. The timing of the visit — as the Biden administration ponders how far to go in helping defend Ukraine against Russia — suggests more than “standard practice,” said William Leogrande, a professor at American University.

“The visiting Russian warships are Putin’s way of reminding Biden that Moscow can challenge Washington in its own sphere of influence,” Leogrande said.

The stopover coincides with Cuba’s worst social and economic crisis in decades, with shortages of everything from food, medicine and fuel and growing discontent on the streets.

“This […] has echoes of the Cold War, but unlike the first Cold War, the Cubans are drawn to Moscow not by ideological affinity but by economic necessity,” Leogrande said.

History looms large in Cuba, especially when it comes to Russia and its predecessor the Soviet Union. The Cuban missile crisis erupted in 1962 when the Soviet Union responded to a US missile deployment in Turkiye by sending ballistic missiles to Cuba, sparking a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The two countries are once again strengthening ties.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2024

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