NewsRussian flotilla's Cuba visit signals tension under American nose

Russian flotilla's Cuba visit signals tension under American nose

Vladimir Putin and the President of Cuba Miguel Diaz-Canel
Vladimir Putin and the President of Cuba Miguel Diaz-Canel
Images source: © East News | MAXIM SHEMETOV

23 June 2024 08:11, updated: 23 June 2024 08:40

When tensions rise between Washington and Moscow, it has always signalled that the Kremlin will soon remind itself of Cuba. The message to the USA is clear: "Look, we can be right under your nose."

This is precisely the purpose of the Russian flotilla's visit to Cuba in June. After completing manoeuvres in the Caribbean Sea, the missile frigate "Admiral Gorshkov", nuclear submarine "Kazan", tanker "Pashyn", and tugboat "Nikolay Chiker" entered the port in Havana.

The Russian flotilla docked there from 12 to 17 June and then headed to Venezuela. The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that there were no nuclear weapons on board any of the vessels, and their presence in the port "does not pose a threat to the region."

The Pentagon, notified of the visit, said the Russian military presence is noticeable but not worrisome. The calming tone does not change the fact that the Russians appeared near American borders several days after Washington permitted Ukraine to attack targets in Russia with American weapons.

Joe Biden granted the authorisation, which was met with outrage from the Kremlin. "For unknown reasons, they underestimate the seriousness of the rebuff they may receive," said Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, at the time.

Therefore, the visit to Cuba was probably not a coincidence but a planned show of force. The Kremlin last used a similar manoeuvre in 2015. Then, a day before Cuban-American talks on reopening diplomatic relations, an unannounced Russian reconnaissance ship entered Havana. Nine years ago, as now, it was a clear signal: "Cuba is our sphere of influence."

The most striking example of this perception of the island by the Russians was, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Then, the Kremlin, in agreement with Fidel Castro, decided to deploy Soviet short- and medium-range missiles with thermonuclear warheads in Cuba and to send a contingent of 22,000 soldiers.

After the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, Moscow suspended its ships' regular visits to Havana for nearly 20 years. This "tradition" was restored in 2008 under Vladimir Putin's rule.

Faithful ally

Cuban authorities have unconditionally supported Russia since the onset of the war in Ukraine.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took over power from Raul Castro, visited Moscow in November 2022.

In a speech delivered in the Duma, he supported the "historically justified" annexation of Crimea and Donbas. He blamed the USA and "unacceptable NATO expansion" for the outbreak of the war. At a meeting with Putin, he stated that "Russia and Cuba are subject to unfair and arbitrary sanctions that continue, and they have a common enemy".

Vladimir Putin reciprocated by unveiling a monument to Fidel Castro in Moscow. Most importantly, he deferred Cuba's debt repayment of £1.9 billion. The amount may not be impressive, but it was a significant gesture for the Cubans.

The economic crisis on the communist-ruled island has lasted for four years. People began taking to the streets in protests. "We want bread!" "Freedom!" "We want electricity and food!" they shouted during the recent demonstrations caused by power supply shortages.

The troubles of the communists were partly caused by sanctions imposed by Donald Trump, who limited the remittance limits sent by Cuban Americans in the USA to relatives in Cuba. Trump also suspended flight connections with Havana.

Joe Biden eased the restrictions, and the Department of State explained: "With these actions, we aim to support Cubans’ aspirations for freedom and for greater economic opportunities." Simultaneously, it added: " We continue to call on the Cuban government to immediately release political prisoners, to respect the Cuban people’s fundamental freedoms and to allow the Cuban people to determine their own futures."

The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded briefly this was "a small step in the right direction." Of course, the ministry did not mention freedom or the release of prisoners.

No choice

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia's international standing has been declining daily. The Kremlin launched a diplomatic offensive and a series of visits to strengthen alliances and show Russia's strength, to let allies know that Russia is still a power and deals the cards.

In recent weeks, the Russian president, prime minister, and ministers visited Beijing to discuss economic and military cooperation. At the same time, joint naval manoeuvres of both countries' ships began in the Pacific. China and Russia have intensified naval exercises in the East China Sea and South China Sea, organising displays of power for nearly two years.

From Beijing, Putin travelled to Pyongyang, where he met with Kim Jong Un, thanking him for the support given during the "special operation" in Ukraine. They signed a bilateral defence treaty targeting "American imperialism" during the visit.

There will be more such visits. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that "Russia try, in desperation, to develop and to strengthen relations with countries that can provide it with what it needs to continue the war of aggression that it started against Ukraine."

Two years ago, Putin would hardly have expected to have to travel the world like a travelling salesman, seeking support in countries that — like Cuba — the Kremlin treated very patronisingly not long ago.

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